Previous studies warned that 16 million Americans have been exposed to drinking water contaminated by a class of fluorinated nonstick chemicals that have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity, and other health problems.
That’s a huge number of people. But throw that figure out the window because a new report released Tuesday by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that the drinking water of up to 110 million people across the country — almost seven times more than the group’s previous estimate — may be contaminated with the class of chemicals.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only required water utilities to report chemical pollution at levels much higher than the sensitive levels lab tests can detect. When one of the labs that analyzed utilities’ water samples re-examined its data, it found that if the EPA had required a lower, health-protective reporting level, many more water systems would have shown pollution.
The lab came across the higher number of Americans exposed to the chemical after testing for levels of 2.5 parts per trillion. The previous studies only looked at water supplies with levels of 10 to 90 parts per trillion.
The EPA has no legal limits for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, only a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 ppt for either chemical or the two combined. But there is evidence that a safe level of exposure is much lower.
The EWG released its new findings on the same day the EPA held a national summit on polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances — also known as PFAS, a class of chemicals linked to potentially serious health impacts with long-term exposure.
At the summit, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the agency will look at establishing a maximum contaminant level for the chemicals. Calling it a “national priority,” Pruitt said the EPA will move to regulate the chemicals as “hazardous.”
Beyond exposure through drinking water, these chemicals are found in several types of consumer products, such as carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packing for food, firefighting foam, and other materials, such as cookware, that are resistant to water, grease, or stains. The chemicals used to treat these products can leach into the water supply during the manufacturing process, where they can remain for years.
“Given Scott Pruitt’s record of trying to roll back public health protections and going easy on chemical polluters, taking him at his word that he’ll swing into action on PFAS is like believing a seven-year-old who promises to clean up his room after dessert,” David Andrews, an EWG senior scientist and author of the new report, said Tuesday in a statement.
The EPA barred reporters from several news outlets, including the Associated Press, CNN, and E&E News, from the summit’s introductory statements. One reporter with the Associated Press was allegedly forcibly removed from the EPA headquarters after trying to enter to report on the summit.
“Even at a scientific conference, intended to find answers and educate the public about a serious drinking water contamination problem, we see the influence of Pruitt’s style of secrecy and entitlement,” Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said Tuesday in a statement.
The summit was focusing on a type of chemical that has attracted more attention after Politico reported last week that officials from the EPA, the Department of Defense, and the White House sought to delay the release of a report from the Centers for Disease Control that evaluates whether the chemicals are toxic.
The officials reportedly did not want the public learning that the PFAS chemicals are hazardous at a lower level than currently recommended. One Trump administration official warned release of the information would cause a “public relations nightmare,” Politico said.
Although certain types of these chemicals have been phased out of production, they can last in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time. And, in response to the bans, manufacturers have replaced them with structurally similar, largely untested, chemicals that may be no safer.
The most-studied fluorinated chemicals are PFOA, formerly used to make Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient of 3M’s Scotchgard. The two chemicals were phased out under pressure from the EPA after revelations that DuPont and 3M covered up evidence of their health hazards. Both chemicals are now banned in the U.S., but manufacturers have replaced them with chemicals that are similar at the molecular level.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found these banned chemicals in the blood of virtually all Americans. In 2017, an American Red Cross study found that the blood of the average American has 4,300 parts per trillion, or ppt, of PFOS and 1,100 ppt of PFOA.
Although certain types of these chemicals have been phased out of production, they can last in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time. Facilities that used these chemicals in manufacturing released them into the soil or water in the area, which causes them to accumulate because they are difficult to clean up. Research shows that people exposed to the chemicals through drinking water or who eat food grown in contaminated soil can be more likely to get cancer or face health problems like hormone disruption.
At higher concentrations, the most common way these chemicals got into water was through manufacturing plants, fire-fighting training locations, and wastewater treatment plants, often from industry waste water, Andrews said in an email to ThinkProgress.
At lower concentrations it is possible that consumer products, landfills, and biosolids applied to fields also play a role, noted Andrews, who added there is less detailed information on the contribution these sources make to the total contamination.
It is unclear how the contamination differs between municipal and private wells outside of the fact that most private wells in the country have never been tested for these chemicals. In proximity to contamination sites those on private wells with PFAS have often been hooked up to municipal water, Andrews said.
In response to the bans, manufacturers have replaced them with structurally similar, largely untested, chemicals that may be no safer.
In the report, Andrews wrote there is no ongoing nationwide testing of drinking water for PFAS chemicals. Other tests have found tap water supplies in North Carolina contaminated with a new PFAS chemical called GenX, manufactured by DuPont. The company conducted studies that found GenX causes cancer in lab animals.
In January, the EPA ordered tests for GenX in water supplies near a West Virginia Teflon plant, operated by Chemours, a DuPont spinoff company. Chemours also is responsible for the contamination in North Carolina.