PFAS Contamination of Tap Water Far More Prevalent Than Previously Reported
WASHINGTON – New laboratory tests commissioned by EWG have for the first time found the toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities, including major metropolitan areas. The results confirm that the number of Americans exposed to PFAS from contaminated tap water has been dramatically underestimated by previous studies, both from the Environmental Protection Agency and EWG’s own research.
Based on our tests and new academic research that found PFAS widespread in rainwater, EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water. EWG’s tests also found chemicals from the PFAS family that are not commonly tested for in drinking water.
Of tap water samples from 44 places in 31 states and the District of Columbia, only one location had no detectable PFAS, and only two other locations had PFAS below the level that independent studies show pose risks to human health. Some of the highest PFAS levels detected were in samples from major metropolitan areas, including Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City.
The findings lend urgency to the “Fight Forever Chemicals” campaign launched by Participant in conjunction with “Dark Waters,” a feature film based on the real-life story of attorney Rob Bilott’s 20-year fight against DuPont’s contamination of the drinking water around Parkersburg, W.Va., with a PFAS chemical used to make Teflon. Since Bilott began his crusade, PFAS has been detected in the water of almost 1,400 communities, in almost every state.
“Decades of chemical industry deception and government inaction and collusion have brought us to this crisis,” said Mark Ruffalo, the star and a producer of the film, and a longtime environmental activist. “Nearly every American is carrying these dangerous chemicals in their blood, and as EWG’s new findings show, everywhere we look, we find more PFAS contamination of our tap water. The government has done little or nothing in 20 years, so it’s time for all of us to demand that our elected leaders do their jobs and pass laws to clean up this mess.”
“We don’t know how long these communities have been drinking PFAS-contaminated water, but we do know that these chemicals have been used and discharged all across the country for years,” said EWG President and co-founder Ken Cook. “If not for Rob Bilott’s dogged work to expose the decades of deception by DuPont, 3M and other chemical companies, the scope of PFAS pollution in our water, air and food might very well be largely secret today.”
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because once they are released into the environment they never break down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that almost all Americans, including newborns, have PFAS chemicals in their blood that have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other serious diseases.
EWG’s tap water samples, collected from May to December 2019, were analyzed by an accredited independent laboratory for the presence of 30 different PFAS compounds. That’s five times as many chemicals as were tested for in an EPA-mandated program from 2014 to 2015, which grossly underreported the true extent of contamination.
On average, six or seven different PFAS chemicals were detected in samples. The most notorious PFAS compounds – PFOA, the Teflon chemical, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard – were found in 30 and 34 samples out of 44, respectively.
“This research reveals that escaping PFAS pollution is nearly impossible,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG vice president for science investigations, who led the new study. “Communities and families all across the nation are bearing the burden of chemical companies’ callous disregard for human health and the government’s inaction. This crisis calls for immediate action to ensure that all Americans have safe and clean drinking water.”
Naidenko said EWG would be conducting more tests for PFAS in drinking water later this year.
The water sample collected from Belville Elementary School in New Brunswick County, North Carolina, by the grassroots group Clean Cape Fear had the highest levels of PFAS out of all the samples tested at 185.9 ppt.
"I'm devastated to see my children's school at the top of this nationwide study,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear. “Belville is the largest elementary school in southeastern North Carolina. This is wrong. I'm so sad. My PTO should be asking for cookie and cupcake donations, but instead parents are regularly asked to donate gallons of bottled water. America is better than this. We need to start acting that way."
“Dark Waters” is based on a New York Times magazine article about Bilott’s crusade. Bilott has recently published his own book, “Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against Dupont.” Ruffalo stars as Bilott, whose dogged investigation led to the truth that PFAS has contaminated water, the environment, people and animals around the world.
In November, Ruffalo testified before a congressional oversight hearing, during which he called on lawmakers to pass legislation swiftly to reduce Americans’ exposure to forever chemicals in drinking water and from other routes of exposure.
Independent scientific studies have recommended a safe level for PFAS in drinking water of 1 ppt, which is endorsed by EWG. There is currently no federal drinking water limit for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Several states, including New Jersey, have taken steps to set health protective drinking water limits for some PFAS.
Currently, there are efforts in Congress to pass legislation that would reduce PFAS exposure from drinking water and other sources of exposure. President Trump has threatened to veto legislation recently passed by the House that would significantly address PFAS contamination, including reducing it from the nation’s drinking water supply.
Additional comments from advocates in communities impacted by PFAS contamination.
"Scientists tell us that exposure to low levels of PFAS are passed from pregnant mothers to unborn babies and small children. My state moved to protect this vulnerable cohort from exposure to four of the more than 5,000 PFAS we know about. Now we know there are more than one or two or even four of these toxic chemicals showing up in our water across the country and even in my own tap water in Rye, N.H. New Hampshire has the highest rate of pediatric cancer in the nation. When we know these chemicals pass to babies, and we suspect they cause harm, we must move expeditiously to prevent them from harm and regulate these toxins as a class.” — Mindi Messmer, P.G., C.G., former New Hampshire House of Representatives, District 24, who served on Health, Human Services & Elderly Affairs Committee.
"PFAS contamination is a nationwide issue that is much bigger than the EPA has reported. And despite the EPA only having lifetime health advisories of 70 ppt for two PFAS in a large family of chemicals, the reality is that many Americans are exposed to a combination of multiple PFAS in their drinking water. We must stop giving these chemicals the benefit of the doubt by allowing communities to be exposed to them while we wait for the EPA to take action. Instead, we must regulate PFAS as a class and set a MCL of 1 ppt for all PFAS to prevent additional exposure and harm to innocent communities. And we must make polluters pay for the cost of clean up, access to clean water, blood testing, health studies, medical monitoring, and the damages suffered by communities who had no choice in drinking contaminated water with forever chemicals.” — Andrea Amico, co-founder, Testing for Pease, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.