EPA finds no safe level for two toxic ‘forever chemicals,’ found in many U.S. water systems

USA Today | Wed, June 15, 2022
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The Environmental Protection Agency stunned scientists and local officials across the country on Wednesday by releasing new health advisories for toxic “forever chemicals” known to be in thousands of U.S. drinking water systems, impacting potentially millions of people.

The new advisories cut the safe level of chemical PFOA by more than 17,000 times what the agency had previously said was protective of public health, to now just four “parts per quadrillion.” The safe level of a sister chemical, PFOS, was reduced by a factor of 3,500. The chemicals are part of a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals due to their extreme resistance to disintegration. They have been linked to different types of cancer, low birthweights, thyroid disease and other health ailments.

In effect, the agency now says, any detectable amounts of PFOA and PFOS are unsafe to consume.

The announcement has massive implications for water utilities, towns, and Americans across the country.

The Environmental Working Group, a national environmental nonprofit, has tracked the presence of PFOA, PFOS, and other PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Because the chemicals are not yet officially regulated, water systems are not required to test for them. But their use for decades in a range of products such as Teflon and other nonstick cookware, clothing, food packaging, furniture, and numerous industrial processes, means they are widespread in both the environment and drinking water.

Scott Faber, senior vice president with the group, said this week that at least 1,943 public water supplies across the country have been found to contain some amount of PFOS and PFOA. And there are likely many more that contain the chemicals but haven’t tested, Faber said, potentially placing many millions of Americans in harm’s way.

“This will set off alarm bells for consumers, for regulators, and for manufacturers, who thought the previous (advisories) were safe,” Faber said. “I can’t find the words to explain what kind of a moment this is. … The number of people drinking what are, according to these new numbers, unsafe levels of PFAS, is going to grow astronomically.”

Previous research has found Americans have already faced widespread exposure to the chemicals for decades.

More than 96% of Americans have at least one PFAS in their blood, studies show. Dangers are most studied for PFOA and PFOS, which were used heavily in consumer goods before a voluntary agreement between the EPA and industry phased them out of domestic production in the 2000s. Since then, the amount of PFOA and PFOS in the blood of everyday Americans has fallen, but scientists are now concerned about a newer generation of “replacement” chemicals that some studies show are also toxic.

Indeed, EPA on Wednesday released two additional, first-time health advisories for PFAS chemicals GenX, which has contaminated communities along the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, as well as PFBS.

For years, scientists have grown increasingly concerned about how the entire class of chemicals, which number in the thousands, may be impacting public health in the United States. In highly contaminated communities like Parkersburg, West Virginia, studies have linked PFOA to kidney and testicular cancers, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and other serious ailments.

But other studies have found a range of PFAS may be toxic even at the extremely low levels found in the general population, potentially impacting the immune system, birth weights, cholesterol levels, and even cancer risk.

Philippe Grandjean, a PFAS researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has called for extremely protective limits on PFAS, said the chemicals don’t have acute toxicity. Consumers shouldn’t expect to fall instantly ill from consuming amounts common in drinking water.

Instead, PFAS work in the background, with risks building up over a lifetime of consumption. His work shows PFAS can decrease the immune response in children. They may come down with more infections than they would otherwise. Vaccinations aren’t as successful, an effect that may even extend to COVID-19 vaccination, a question research is now exploring.

No single individual is likely to know when PFAS caused their illness. But public health officials can detect its presence when studying overall rates, Grandjean said.

“If increased exposures have been in a community, then there will be an increased occurrence of these adverse effects,” Grandjean said.

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