There are thousands of man-made chemicals present in all facets of life, from nonstick cookware to stain-resistant carpets to contaminated sources of food and water. Unfortunately, these substances have a slow breakdown rate, resulting in an accumulation in people, animals, and the environment over time.
Research has indicated that exposure to certain PFAS may be associated with detrimental health effects in humans, such as an increased risk of certain cancers, heightened obesity and cholesterol levels, decreased fertility, and developmental issues like low birth weight in children.
“This USGS study can help members of the public to understand their risk of exposure and inform policy and management decisions regarding testing and treatment options for drinking water,” Kelly Smalling, a USGS research chemist who is the lead author of the new study released in July, told NPR.
This study is the first to compare PFAS in tap water from both public and private supplies on a broad scale throughout the country, Smalling said.
This USGS map shows the number of PFAS detected in tap water samples from select sites across the nation.
Over the course of five years, water samples were collected from over 700 locations across the nation and tested for PFAS contamination. This data was then used to construct models and make estimations on a national scale.
And it comes as the federal government claims it is looking to create new regulations for toxins in drinking water.
USGS tested for 32 individual PFAS compounds, and said in a release that the EPA’s recent advisories for PFOS and PFOA “were exceeded in every sample in which they were detected in this study.”
The United States Geological Survey (USGS), which prides itself on being an unbiased and impartial science organization, does not offer policy recommendations in its report. However, according to Smalling, several key takeaways can be gleaned from the report.
Firstly, it emphasizes the need for data collection of PFAS from private wells as they are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) like public sources are. Secondly, it has implications for the general population that should not be overlooked.
Most state and federal monitoring programs typically measure exposure to PFAS and other pollutants at the water treatment plants or groundwater wells that supply them, Smalling said. Her team took a different approach.
“The USGS study specifically focused on collecting water directly from a homeowner’s tap where exposure actually occurs,” she explained.
From 2016 to 2021, scientists conducted a nationwide survey of 716 residences, businesses, and drinking-water treatment plants from various protected, rural and urban areas in the US. Of these locations, 447 were supplied by public sources while 269 used private wells.
The findings indicated that PFAS concentrations in the water were similar between those two groups. Despite this, EPA warns that even minute amounts of chemicals present in the drinking water could pose serious risks.
USGS scientists estimated a 75% chance of PFAS presence in urban areas and a 25% chance in rural areas.
This is consistent with the findings from Smalling, who observed higher concentrations of chemicals near urban areas and potential sources such as airports and wastewater treatment plants. The study additionally implies that exposure may be more widespread in specific geographical regions.
“Results from this study indicate potential hotspots include the Great Plains, Great Lakes, Eastern Seaboard, and Central/Southern California regions,” Smalling said.
The study says its findings support the need for further assessments of the health risks of PFAS both as a class and in combination with other contaminants, “particularly in unmonitored private wells where information is limited or not available.”
The EPA recommends finding out whether PFAS chemicals are in your drinking water, either by calling your local water utility or conducting regular well testing, depending on your source. Then you can compare those numbers to your state’s standards for safe levels of PFAS in drinking water (or those in the EPA advisories).
In the meantime, the EPA also suggests installing under-the-sink water filtration systems, that are certified to lower or remove the levels of PFAS in water, is the best way to ensure you are not continuing to put yourself and your family at risk of coming into contact with these toxins.
In March, the EPA proposed the first federal drinking water limit on six forms of PFAS. If enforced, this could potentially reduce exposure for close to 100 million Americans. However, the regulations would require water systems to conduct costly testing and mitigation efforts and be transparent with their results, as reported by WBUR’s Gabrielle Emanuel in an NPR interview at the time.
Additionally, these regulations do not cover the approximately 1 in 8 Americans who get their water from private wells; they will generally be responsible for their own testing and filtration.