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At Least 45 Percent of US Tap Water Contaminated With PFAS “Forever Chemicals”

So far, the scale of contamination in local water systems and private wells outpaces detection and cleanup efforts.

The U.S. Geological Survey tested tap water from kitchen sinks across the country and estimates that at least one type of PFAS can be found in nearly half of drinking water in the nation.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) announced on Wednesday that at least 45 percent of tap water nationwide is likely contaminated with one or more type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, a family of harmful “forever chemicals” that do not break down in the environment and can now be widely detected in water supplies and virtually all of our bodies.

Independent testing has found PFAS contamination in fresh water sources such as groundwater, rivers and lakes, as well as drinking water at more than 2,800 sites across the country, but USGS says its study is the first to test both public and private water systems on such a broad, a national scale.

Congress and the Biden administration are investing billions of dollars for PFAS detection and cleanup after years of public outcry over water contamination, but the USGS study suggests the problem is massive in scope and may take decades of long-term spending to address, according to Jared Hayes, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Working Group.

“It’s pretty shocking, but at the same time not that shocking that PFAS is probably in 45 percent of tap water, because PFAS is so prevalent,” Hayes said in an interview.

PFAS is an extensive family of synthetic chemicals with a variety of consumer and industrial uses ranging from cleaning products and nonstick lining in fast-food packaging to firefighting foam. Research is ongoing, but exposure to high levels of some types of PFAS is linked to cancer and a host of other health problems, including hormone dysfunction and a weakened immune system. The chemicals also cause damage to the environment, where they can persist for decades in water and the bodies of fish and other wildlife.

The USGS reports that there are more than 12,000 known types of PFAS chemicals, but testing cannot detect all of them at once. The USGS tested for 32 common types of PFAS at sites across the country and modeled the results based on proximity to potential sources of PFAS pollution.

Research hydrologist Kelly Smalling, the study’s lead author, said USGS tested water directly from public water systems and kitchen sinks across the country.

“The study estimates that at least one type of PFAS — of those that were monitored — could be present in nearly half of the tap water in the U.S.,” Smalling said in a statement on Wednesday. “Furthermore, PFAS concentrations were similar between public supplies and private wells.”

PFAS exposure often occurs via consuming contaminated food and water or using products that contain PFAS, including some “nonstick” products and packaging. Testing suggests that most people in the U.S. are exposed to PFAS and have “forever chemicals” in our blood, especially perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. PFOS and PFOA dominated the “potential human exposure risk” in the USGS tap water samples.

Nationally, there are thousands of potential and suspected industrial sources of PFAS pollution, ranging from airports and oil refineries to paper mills and manufacturers of paint and finishing products, according to the Environmental Working Group. Hayes said industrial facilities that use or produce PFAS are often located near low-income areas and communities of color that are disproportionately burdened by air and water pollution.

There are currently no federal clean water regulations for controlling this PFAS pollution, although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reportedly developing regulations for some types of industries. In the meantime, the EPA is encouraging states to use their clean water permitting programs to limit the amount of PFAS-contaminated water discharged into drinking water supplies and treatment facilities.

Testing suggests that most people in the U.S. are exposed to PFAS and have “forever chemicals” in our blood.

The chemical companies that manufacture and sell PFAS itself have faced a deluge of lawsuits over PFAS contamination in drinking water supplies. 3M, a major producer of PFAS and related products, recently reached a $10.3 billion settlement with U.S. cities and towns facing PFAS contamination in municipal water systems. Three other PFAS sellers — Chemours, DuPont and Corteva — announced a similar $1.19 billion settlement over drinking water contamination last week. All four companies have denied wrongdoing.

“There are 30,000 to 40,000 industrial sites across the U.S. that are likely having PFAS discharges into local storm and wastewater streams,” Hayes said. “So that settlement money is a drop in the bucket, and they are going deal it with it forever.”

Another major source is military bases, where PFAS has long been a key ingredient in firefighting foam used to put out oil fires and burning jet fuel. Groundwater contaminated with PFAS has impacted people living on and around dozens of military bases.

More than 400 current and former military sites are known to contaminated with PFAS. The Pentagon has said it needs at least $7 billion for PFAS detection and cleanup after 2023, part of an estimated $31 billion needed to address environmental contamination at military sites. However, funding from Congress is not keeping up with cleanup costs and a backlog of contaminated sites, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Hayes pointed to the most recent House version of the 2024 Department of Defense funding bill, which cuts funding for cleaning up contamination from “forever chemicals” and other toxic pollutants from $1.6 billion to $1.1 billion, a 30 percent decrease.

“The cuts in spending don’t match up with what is happening on the ground,” Hayes said, adding that the USGS study adds to a growing pile of data suggesting the U.S. faces decades of PFAS cleanup and costs will only increase.

The EPA recently proposed the first enforceable national standards for six common types of PFAS found in drinking water, but the rules must be finalized before municipal water systems are required to test for and remove PFAS.

Municipal water systems sued PFAS manufacturers in order to win the settlements that will help cover the costs of controlling PFAS in drinking water, but taxpayers will likely be on the hook for the long haul. The Biden administration is currently rolling out $9 billion in spending over five years for addressing PFAS and other “emerging contaminants” in impacted communities that was included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Funding for ridding our drinking water of toxic “forever chemicals” is bound to be a hot topic in Congress for years to come. After all, the PFAS isn’t going anywhere.

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