Energy & Environment

EPA finds toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in water systems around the nation

Toxic “forever chemicals” have contaminated water systems around the nation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Thursday.

Those chemicals could affect the drinking water of 26 million people, an environmental advocacy organization called the Environmental Working Group estimated based on the new EPA data.

Cities where high levels of some of the most toxic types of the chemicals were found include Fresno, Calif., and Dallas, Texas. 

The EPA said that two of the most dangerous types of forever chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, were found at unsafe levels in between 7.8 and 8.5 percent of public water systems. 

Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, told The Hill he was “gobsmacked” by the results.

“I’m like, lifting my jaw off the floor as we’re pulling the data,” Faber said. “Millions of people have been drinking dangerously high levels of PFAS all of their lives and are learning about it today.”

PFAS are a group of toxic chemicals that have become pervasive in both U.S. water and in people. They have been used to make a variety of waterproof and nonstick products including Teflon pans, cosmetics, raincoats and stain removers. 

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to illnesses including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease and high cholesterol. They are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” because they build up and accumulate in a person’s body over time instead of breaking down. 

Earlier this year, the EPA proposed regulating PFOA and PFOS, saying it would limit them to just 4 parts per trillion — but the new data shows that even some water systems serving big cities have levels of the chemicals that are higher than this.

A sample from Fresno, for example, saw 16 parts per trillion of PFOA and 29 parts per trillion of PFOS — 4 and 7.25 times the proposed regulatory level from the EPA. 

For PFAS overall, which is a broad class of thousands of chemicals, Fresno had 194.3 parts per trillion. 

A sample from Dallas also showed PFOA and PFOS above the EPA’s levels, at 4.7 parts per trillion and 5.1 parts per trillion respectively, while the Dallas sample had a total PFAS  concentration of 53.4 parts per trillion.

The findings add to a body of literature indicating that these chemicals are widespread. A July assessment from the U.S. Geological Survey found that PFAS were in 45 percent of U.S. taps. 

Tags Scott Faber