Study: ‘Nearly ubiquitous’ cancer-linked chemicals in US water

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A recent study has found a “nearly ubiquitous” level of synthetic chemicals in the predominant source of drinking water in the U.S. — surface water.

Researchers with the Environmental Working Group have estimated that over 200 million Americans could have toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS at or above the minimum recommended safe level.

In the study, which was published in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology Letters” on Oct. 14, scientists examined publicly accessible drinking water testing results from the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey. They also reviewed state levels through testing by North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Also included were laboratory tests commissioned by EWG that found PFAS chemicals in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities. Major metropolitan areas including New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City had some of the highest PFAS levels detected in their samples.

“We know drinking water is a major source of exposure of these toxic chemicals,” Dr. Olga Naidenko, vice president for science investigations at EWG and a co-author of the recent study said in a press release. “This new paper shows that PFAS pollution is affecting even more Americans than we previously estimated. PFAS are likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water.”

A study from the National Institutes of Health noted about 97% of people in the U.S. have distinguishable levels of PFAS in their blood.

According to Medical News Today, epidemiological studies link high blood serum levels of two PFAS in particular — PFOA and PFOS— to weakened immunity, thyroid disease and high cholesterol.

There has also been a study that reviewed a local population with exposure to high PFOA levels in drinking water due to chemical plant emissions. Researchers discovered an association between the chemicals and testicular cancer and kidney cancers.

In the new study, researchers wrote that they found “that mixtures of PFAS are nearly ubiquitous in surface water, the predominate source of drinking water for the U.S. population.

"We estimate that 18–80 million people in the U.S. receive tap water with 10 ng/L or greater concentration of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) combined, and over 200 million people likely receive water with a PFOA and PFOS concentration at or above 1 ng/L,” they continued.

No federal standards exist for PFOS and in their absence, states have established their own.

New Jersey issued a maximum contaminant limit for the compound PFNA, first putting the maximum at 13 ppt. It has set standards of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA. Other states have established or proposed limits on the substances, including California, New York and Michigan.

“The first step in fighting any contamination crisis is to turn off the tap,” Scott Faber, EWG senior vice president for government affairs said in a statement. “The second step is to set a drinking water standard, and the third is to clean up legacy pollution. The PFAS Action Act passed by the House would address all three steps by setting deadlines for limiting industrial PFAS releases, setting a two-year deadline for a drinking water standard, and designating PFAS as ‘hazardous substances’ under the Superfund law. But Mitch McConnell’s Senate has refused to act to protect our communities from ‘forever chemicals.’”

EWG is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group with the mission of enabling people to “live healthier lives in a healthier environment,” according to the website.

For more on the group’s study, see the announcement here.