- PFAS was present in 33 percent of systems tested by the US EPA last year
- The tests were conducted at 3,700 water systems across the country in 2023
- READ MORE: Chemicals in common products may contribute to early deaths
More than 70 million Americans are drinking from tap water that contains toxic ‘forever chemicals’ linked to cancer, official data suggests.
These microscopic, man-made chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), can take thousands of years to break down in the environment or in the human body, hence the name ‘forever chemicals.’
They have been linked to several lasting health problems, including several types of cancer, hormone disruption and liver damage and the health problems they cause are quietly costing the US $250 billion a year in healthcare.
The new results showed that PFAS was present in 33 percent of systems tested by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – with contamination most common in densely populated coastal cities.
More than 70 million Americans have drinking water that has tested positive for toxic ‘forever chemicals’, research has shown
PFAS is a common contaminant in many household items from cookware to hamburger wrappers. It can remain in the environment as well as human tissue for years, even decades, before being cleared out
The EPA released data on February 1, reflecting tests conducted in 2023 at 3,700 water systems across the country, accounting for one-third of public water supplies.
The results were then extrapolated and applied to population figures in an analysis by the activist organization Environment Working Group (EWG).
‘The full scale of PFAS contamination is likely much more widespread,’ an EWG spokesperson said, because the report only provides a snapshot of the situation in the US.
The worst hit areas are along the East Coast, including New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
The main purpose of PFAS compounds is to repel water and oil, which is what makes non-stick cookware so much easier to clean and why certain jackets and tents can withstand rain.
PFAS can seep into the water supply by simply washing the dishes. The compounds can also end up in our food if the packaging is made to be grease-resistant – think fast food cheeseburgers – or if the non-stick coating on pots and pans begins to deteriorate.
PFAS are also common in pesticides used to feed crops.
This produces chemical-rich runoff that can enter the drinking water supply.
In March 2023, the EPA proposed the first federal limits for PFAS in drinking water.
The agency said water could contain no more than four parts per trillion, for PFOA and PFOS, which is the limit of detection for both chemicals.
Scott Faber, EWG senior vice president for government affairs, said: ‘There are many other steps we must take to reduce PFAS pollution, including ending non-essential uses of PFAS, ending industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water, cleaning up legacy PFAS pollution, and properly disposing of PFAS waste.’
About 270 million Americans rely on public sources for their drinking water, while another 40 million use private wells, and all of them could be affected.
The situation appears even more dire at the local level, with certain cities and neighborhoods’ drinking water sources containing levels of PFAS far exceed those that the EPA deems is safe.
The problem has received growing attention in recent years in part due to increased media focus, as well as advancing testing methods that can detect the chemicals in low levels in the environment and in people.
And an expanding body of research into the effects of PFAS exposure has driven home the fact that even low levels of the chemicals can prove toxic.
Unfortunately, they are nearly everywhere, from non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers and popcorn bags, and stain removers, to cosmetics and firefighting foam.
‘Forever chemicals’ are nicknamed as such because they break down in the environment incredibly slowly and can remain in the body for decades or even longer before being cleared.
Some varieties of PFAS have been shown to increase levels of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol that contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries, slowly blocking blood flow in the arteries which greatly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Prolonged exposure to PFAS – which is not out of the realm of possibility given its constant presence in homes – can severely damage the liver.
US government researchers concluded in 2022 that when humans and rodents were exposed to the three common varieties of PFAS, they showed elevated levels of an enzyme called ALT, a marker of liver damage, in the blood.
PFAS also disrupts the delicate hormone balance that has profound effects on our mental and physical health. This includes sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone which, when tampered with, can impact reproductive health and fertility.
Women exposed to PFAS during pregnancy have higher risks of gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, a type of high blood pressure. Babies exposed to the chemicals in utero, meanwhile, are at higher risk for low birth weight and increased risk of childhood obesity and infections down the line.
The disruption to normal hormone regulation can also lead to severe damage to the thyroid.
There is also some evidence that exposure over a long period of time can contribute to cancer risk, particularly in the kidneys and testicles.