Most of America’s waterways are likely contaminated by toxic PFAS “forever chemicals”, a new study conducted by US water keepers finds.
The Waterkeeper Alliance analysis found detectable PFAS levels in 95 out of 114, or 83%, of waterways tested across 34 states and the District of Columbia, and frequently at levels that exceed federal and state limits.
“The results clearly show widespread PFAS contamination across the country and demonstrate that existing laws and regulations are inadequate for protecting us,” said Marc Yaggi, CEO of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a non-profit network that represents local “water keepers” who monitor watersheds throughout the country for pollution.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 12,000 chemicals often used to make products resist water, stain and heat. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down, and are linked to cancer, liver problems, thyroid issues, birth defects, kidney disease, decreased immunity and other serious health problems.
Previous analyses have used municipal utility data to estimate that the chemicals are contaminating drinking water for over 200 million people, while another study found widespread contamination of groundwater drawn by private and municipal wells.
Lax regulation allows industrial users to discharge the chemicals into the environment largely unchecked, though some states and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are taking steps to begin tracking them. Landfills, airports, military bases, paper mills and wastewater treatment plants are among common sources.
The new study checked a range of surface waters, including canals, creeks and rivers. It found PFAS in 29 out of 34 states, and the 19 waterways in which it didn’t detect the compounds ran through largely undeveloped regions.
The study detected two of the most studied and dangerous compounds, PFOS and PFOA, at 70% of testing sites – more than any other of the 33 compounds it found.
The EPA lowered its health advisory limit for PFOA and PFOS to .004 parts per trillion (ppt) and .02 ppt, respectively, effectively finding that no level of exposure is safe. PFOS was detected in Maryland’s Piscataway Creek, a tributary that feeds into the Potomac River just south of Washington DC, at a level exceeding 1,300 ppt. The reading is nearly 70,000 times the EPA’s advisory level.
Regulators and utilities have been slow to address PFAS contamination in part because of costs. The EPA has proposed designating PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances, which could force industry to fund cleanups for those compounds, but not the other 33 found in the study, or thousands more that exist. That will leave it up to taxpayers to cover those cleanup costs.
“In other words, the public is going to be subsidizing the industrial polluters,” Yaggi said.