Almost half of U.S. tap water contains ‘forever chemicals

A chemical targeted by the Biden administration is entering nearly half of America’s water systems, according to a new study by the US Geological Survey, raising concerns about a large family of compounds.

The unprecedented report will give more ammunition to lawmakers pushing for a ban on PFAS. Their efforts have paid off, and while the Biden administration has cracked down on the substance with several laws, regulators are scrambling to regulate the problem.

In a report released Wednesday, scientists found that public and private water sources contain one or more PFASs. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that “45 percent of the world’s water supply” has been distributed, and the number could be much higher.

The findings provide unique insight into the extent of PFAS and PFAS contamination across the country, USGS hydrologist Kelly Smolin said.

The scientists “tested water collected directly from people’s kitchen sinks across the country, making it the most comprehensive study to date of PFAS in tap water from private water sources and public water supplies,” Smalling said.

Although the EPA regulates public water supplies, homeowners are responsible for testing and maintaining private water sources. USGS tested all water systems for 32 PFAS compounds. There are more than 12,000 chemicals in this family, but many of them are difficult to detect due to a lack of technology and understanding of these chemicals.

Using methods developed by the USGS National Water Quality Laboratory, scientists can detect a wide range of compounds. Seventeen chemicals have been detected at least once, with the most frequently detected compounds being the most worrisome compounds studied by scientists to date, including PFOA, PFBS, and PFHxS.

All three substances are being closely monitored by regulators. PFOA, considered a possible carcinogen, was banned in the United States years ago because of its many health concerns, from liver and kidney disease to birth and developmental problems. PFBS and PFHxS are among the compounds the Biden administration is trying to control in drinking water because of alarming studies about their health effects.

The presence of these compounds in water systems has long been documented, but the USGS study revealed the extent of the contamination. Scientists collected tap water samples from 716 sites and tried to identify areas with low, medium and high human influence. The low-level category includes public lands with some level of human protection, while the medium-level category includes residential and rural areas where the source of PFAS is unknown. Areas of high concentration are urban environments and areas exposed to chemicals, including industrial areas and waste treatment areas.

Given these names, scientists have found higher levels of PFAS in cities and regions believed to be the source of these chemicals. Several regions reported high levels of pollution, the study said, including the Great Plains and Great Lakes region, the East Coast, and southern and central California. Cumulative concentrations of these chemicals currently range from unknown levels to 346 parts per trillion.

Overall, the USGS estimates that the chance of these compounds being undetectable in well water in rural areas drops to 75 percent and 25 percent in urban areas.

“Studies show that almost half of US tap water contains at least one PFAS, which is being investigated,” Smalling said.

The decisions will increase pressure on the Biden administration to fight the chemical.

One of the most interesting steps to date is the plan to control six PFASs under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under the model introduced this spring, levels of PFOA and another known PFOS in drinking water are limited to 4 ppt, the lowest levels that labs can measure. Currently, PFHxS and PFBS belong to four other chemicals that are classified as mixtures and banned due to their toxicity.

The USGS findings show how difficult it will be to enforce these thresholds, which affect most of the nation’s water resources. Utilities have long argued that the cost and opportunity to fix the problem would require large government bailouts or put the burden on taxpayers. Meanwhile, many have turned to lawsuits targeting chemical giants like 3M and DuPont for damages, a trend that led to a $12 billion settlement agreement.

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