Study finds unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water for 6 million Americans

Levels of a widely used class of industrial chemicals linked with cancer and other health problems – polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) – exceed federally recommended safety levels in public drinking waterDrinking water quality has a micro-biological and a physico-chemical dimension. There are thousands of parameters of water quality. In public water supply systems water should, at a minimum, be disinfected—most commonly through the use of chlorination or the use of ultra violet ... supplies for six million people in the U.S., according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

“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 HealthThe health status of millions of people is projected to be affected through, for example, increases in malnutrition; increased deaths, diseases and injury due to extreme weather events; increased burden of diarrhoeal diseases; increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher ... at Harvard Chan School and 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.”

PFASs have been used over the past 60 years in industrial and commercial products ranging from food wrappers to clothing to pots and pansA component of the noxious mixture of air pollutants in photochemical smog.. They have been linked with cancer, hormone disruption, high cholesterol, and obesity. Although several major manufacturers have discontinued the use of some PFASs, the chemicals continue to persist in people and wildlife. Drinking waterClimate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass ... is one of the main routes through which people can be exposed.

Image credit: Hu et al., Environmental Science & Technology Letters

The researchers looked at concentrations of six types of PFASs in drinking water supplies, using data from more than 36 000 water samples collected nationwide by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 2013 – 2015. They also looked at industrial sites that manufacture or use PFASs; at military fire training sites and civilian airports where fire-fighting foam containing PFASs is used; and at wastewater treatment plants. Discharges from these plants – which are unable to remove PFASs from wastewater by standard treatment methods–could contaminate groundwater. So could the sludge that the plants generate and which is frequently used as fertilizer.

The study found that PFASs were detectable at the minimum reportingCorporate inventory program. A program to produce annual corporate inventories that are keeping with the principles, standards, and guidance of the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard. This includes all institutional, managerial, and technical arrangements made for the collection of data, ... 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 accounted for 75% of the detections, including, in order of frequency of detection, California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Illinois.

Sixty-six of the public water supplies examined, serving six million people, had at least one water sample that measured at or above the EPA safety limit of 70 parts per trillion (ng/L) for two types of PFASs, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Concentrations ranged as high as 349 ng/L for PFOA (Warminster, PA) and 1,800 ng/L for PFOS (Newark, DE).

The highest levels of PFASs were detected in watersheds near industrial sites, military bases, and wastewater treatment plants – all places where these chemicals may be used or found.

“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,” said Elsie Sunderland, senior author of the study and associate professor in both the Harvard Chan School and SEAS.

Source: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Reference:

  • “Detection of Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) in U.S. Drinking Water Linked to Industrial Sites, Military Fire Training Areas, and Wastewater Treatment Plants” – Hu et al., Environmental Science & Technology Letters – August 9, 2016 – DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00260

Featured image credit: Hu et al., Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Edit: TW

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