A new study conducted by researchers from Harvard suggests that more than 6 million Americans are regularly exposed to high levels of toxins through their drinking water. Researchers reportedly found levels of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (also called PFASs) above what the federal government recommends in public drinking water.
The study, led by Xindi Hu, examined data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), examining the concentrations of six types of PFASs from 36,000 drinking water samples taken between 2013 and 2015. They also examined water samples from industrial sites that either manufacture or use PFASs, wasterwater-treatment plants, and civilian airports.
Of the public water samples included in the study, 66 had at least one water sample that showed levels at or above the EPA’s safety limit of 70 parts per trillion when measuring perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). An estimated six million people could be affected by water at those sample sites.
Some samples reportedly had almost five times the safety limits set by the EPA. Meanwhile, 194 sites out of 4,864 had PFASs at minimum reporting levels. Although that might seem like a small number of reporting sites, Hu notes that a third of the US—approximately 100 million people—does not have data on the PFAS levels. In all, 33 states had at least one testing site that had at least minimum reporting levels of PFASs, while 13 states accounted for 75 percent of the PFAS detections. States with the most detections included California, New Jersey, and North Carolina. The highest levels of PFASs were found near industrial sites, military bases, and wastewater-treatment plants, researchers noted.
“For many years, chemicals with unknown toxicities, such as PFASs, were allowed to be used and released to the environment, and we now have to face the severe consequences,” Hu said in a statement released along with the study.
PFASs are used in food packaging, cleaners, leather, fire-fighting foams, and wire insulation. PFASs have been used for around 60 years and have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and high cholesterol. Some companies have stopped using the chemicals, but drinking water is one of the main sources of exposure for humans.
The EPA is concerned about long-chain PFAS chemicals (chemicals with eight or more carbons), which are “persistent in the environment, bioaccumulative in wildlife and humans, and are toxic to laboratory animals and wildlife, producing reproductive, developmental, and systemic effects in laboratory tests.”
“These compounds are potent immunotoxicants in children and recent work suggests drinking-water safety levels should be much lower than the provisional guidelines established by EPA,” Elise Sunderland, senior author of the study, said in a statement.
The study was conducted by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It was published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters on August 4.