Adding further support for those voices claiming PFAs are turning into the new asbestos, a new federal study estimates that toxic so-called ‘forever chemicals’ can be found in 45% of US tap water.
PFAS refer to a group of thousands of useful substances that have been widely used in retail and industry that linger in the human body and nature, and bioaccumulate instead of breaking down.
However, exposure to PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, has been linked to health problems including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease and high cholesterol.
The new study released this week from the US Geological Survey (USGS) used modelling based on samples taken from 716 locations to determine that nearly half of the country’s tap water contains the substances.
The study found that urban areas are more at risk than rural areas, finding the substances in about 70% of areas that are either urban or have a known history of PFAS contamination, compared to just 8 % of rural areas.
It also found that the substances may be more common in the Great Plains, Great Lakes, Eastern Seaboard and Central and Southern California regions.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken some steps toward curbing two of the most infamous types of PFAS, known as PFOA and PFOS, in drinking water, proposing national drinking water limits in March.
PFOA was found in 14% of the samples, though lead author Kelly Smalling noted that this does not necessarily correspond to 14% of American taps. She said that of the samples where PFOA was found, 48% of them had contained the chemical at levels higher than the EPA’s proposed limit.
“What we’ve been reading about PFAS is that PFAS is everywhere,” noted Smalling, a USGS research hydrologist in an interview.
“What this study has shown us is that even though it’s estimating that 45% of US taps could have at least one PFAS, we also show that there are huge swaths of the country where PFAS was not detected, and I think that’s good news.”
Last month, US chemical manufacturer 3M said it will pay some $10 billion to settle lawsuits in relation to so-called ‘forever chemicals”.
The lawsuit related to alleged contamination of US public drinking water systems with the potentially harmful compounds used in firefighting foam and a host of consumer products, the company said.
The agreement would settle a case that was scheduled for trial last month involving a claim by Stuart, Florida, one of about 300 communities that have filed similar suits against companies that produced firefighting foam or the PFAS it contained.
3M chairman Mike Roman said the deal was “an important step forward” that builds on the company’s decision in 2020 to phase out PFOA and PFOS and its investments in “state-of-the-art water filtration technology in our chemical manufacturing operations.” The company, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, will halt all PFAS production by the end of 2025, he said.