More than 6 million Americans–including some areas of Anne Arundel county–are drinking water laced with unsafe levels of toxins linked with cancer and other diseases, according to a report released August 9th.
Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health found that levels of a certain class of chemicals — called polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs — are above what’s recommended by the federal government in many public drinking water sources.
“These compounds are potent immunotoxicants in children and recent work suggests drinking water safety levels should be much lower than the provisional guidelines established by EPA.” –Elsie Sunderland, a senior author of the study and associate professor in both the Harvard Chan School and SEAS.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFASs are used in a broad range of consumer goods. And according to the ATSDR branch of the CDC, PFAS are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used since the 1950s. In the US, making and using these chemicals has decreased during the last 10 years, but people can still be exposed to PFAs because they are still present in the environment. Scientists have studied how PFAs affect animals’ health but are still trying to understand how exposure to PFAS affects human health. Over the last decade, interest in PFAS has been growing.
The Harvard paper analyzed national data from the EPA, looking at concentrations of six types of PFASs from more than 36,000 drinking water samples collected between 2013-2015.
The researchers reported that 66 of the public water supplies that they studied — which supplied water to 6 million people — had at least one water sample that measured at or above the EPA’s safety limit of 70 parts per trillion (ng/L) for two types of PFAs: perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical commonly used in nonstick cookware.
Some areas close to Maryland had some of the highest chemical concentrations. Warminster, Pennsylvania was found to have 5 times the upper limit allowed by the EPA, and Newark, Delaware had 25 times above the EPA limit. Further, a review of the map to the left (and close up on the right) shows that parts of Anne Arundel county appear to be affected (as well as several other Maryland counties).
In all, the study found that PFASs were detectable at the minimum reporting levels required by the EPA in 194 out of 4,864 water supplies in 33 states across the U.S. Drinking water from 13 states made up 75 percent of those cases. California had the most instances, followed by New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
Even though the EPA’s web site says PFASs “are persistent in the environment, bioaccumulative in wildlife and humans, and are toxic to laboratory animals and wildlife, producing reproductive, developmental, and systemic effects in laboratory tests,” the chemicals in drinking water are not tightly regulated. In fact, the EPA only provides “health advisories” to the managers of drinking water systems take “appropriate actions to protect their residents.”
Immunotoxicants refer to compounds that interfere with the function of the body’s immune system, potentially contributing to the development of infectious diseases or even cancer, as the immune system fails to fight them off.
“For many years, chemicals with unknown toxicities, such as PFASs, were allowed to be used and released to the environment, and we now have to face the severe consequences,” said lead author Xindi Hu, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School, Environmental Science and Engineering at SEAS. “In addition, the actual number of people exposed may be even higher than our study found, because government data for levels of these compounds in drinking water is lacking for almost a third of the U.S. population — about 100 million people.”
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