What's in your water?

Six million Americans in some of the country's most populous states are drinking water contaminated with industrial chemicals, according to a new study. 

Garret Ellison/The Grand Rapids Press/AP/File
This July photo shows a drinking water well structure at Versluis Park in Plainfield Township, Mich. Utilities serving several Michigan towns reported perfluorooctane sulfonate, known as PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, in raw and treated water.

Six million Americans are drinking water contaminated with industrial chemicals, according to a new study.

The chemicals, called polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (or PFASs), have been found by some studies to contribute to a health problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After several highly publicized water crises over the past 12 months, including Flint, Mich., some experts say the key to improving water quality lies in better regulation.

“The way in which drinking water regulations are promulgated is a very slow and deliberate process,” says David Sedlak, the editor-in-chief of the journal in which the study was published, Environmental Science & Technology Letters. “There needs to be a credible regulatory response to this problem.”

PFASs have been used for about six decades in many products, including food wrappers, non-stick cookware, and to make upholstered furniture, carpets and clothing resistant to soil, stains and water. While some manufacturers have discontinued their use, many people are still exposed each year, most via drinking water.

“For many years, chemicals with unknown toxicities, such as PFASs, were allowed to be used and released to the environment,” said lead author Xindi Hu in a Chan School press release, “and we now have to face the severe consequences.”

“In addition, the actual number of people exposed may be even higher than our study found,” Dr. Hu added, “because government data for levels of these compounds in drinking water is lacking for almost a third of the US population – about 100 million people.”

Researchers used 36,000 samples collected between 2013 and 2015 to test for six different types of PFASs. They also studied sites where products containing PFASs are manufactured or used, including airports and industrial sites.

What they found was unexpected: scientists identified reportable levels of PFASs in 194 out of 4,864 water supplies in 33 states. Thirteen of those states accounted for 75 percent of the contamination; among the worst offenders were California, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Alabama. Reportable levels are considered at or above 70 parts per trillion by the EPA.

About six million people drink water from one of the contaminated water supplies, the researchers found. Those in areas with high levels of PFAS in the water supply should avoid drinking and using contaminated water. They should also report unhealty levels to the EPA. 

A national backlash against poor quality drinking water and unenforced drinking water standards followed news last winter that Flint's water supply carried higher levels of lead than are deemed safe by the EPA.

In July, The Christian Science Monitor reported on another water crisis, this time involving a PFAS cousin called PFOA (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid). Residents of Hoosick Falls, a village in northeastern New York about 10 miles west of Bennington, Vt., first brought high levels of PFOA in their drinking water to the attention of regulatory authorities in 2014.

Despite the high PFOA levels, officials told the residents that their water was safe to drink. This July, Congress called upon EPA to testify about their response at a congressional hearing.

“This study will add to the dialogue that started with Hoosick Falls and Bennington,” Dr. Sedlak tells the Monitor in a phone interview, “to accelerate the development of a regulatory response.”

While there has been little congressional progress thus far, Sedlak says that the US military and other regulatory agencies are becoming increasingly concerned about PFASs and similar chemicals.

This is just one water crisis in a string of crises, says Sedlak, pointing to the outcry against dry-cleaning solvents in water 20 years ago.

“This family of contaminants are just another chapter in the story,” he says. “It is important that regulations have some teeth, and that we don’t simply rely on the good intentions of industry to voluntarily regulate contaminants.”

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