Toxic Chemicals in Our Water

The Environmental Protection Agency  recently announced an action plan to address PFAS, a family of toxic chemicals linked to an array of serious illnesses and widely found in drinking water and consumer products.

The EPA’s plan has been condemned as woefully inadequate for continuing to do too little to address this problem. For the Philadelphia region, the concern over PFAS strikes particularly close to home.

Right now there is no federal drinking water standard for PFAS compounds. Yet significant PFAS contamination has been detected in regional groundwater, surface water and plants and animals that live in it. Regional drinking water supply wells have been shut down over contamination concerns, affecting thousands of people in the Philadelphia area alone.

 In response, Academy scientists, in collaboration with others, have begun a study into how PFAS compounds accumulate in plants and animals in streams, in order to help assess the risks to ecosystems and to humans.

So, what exactly is the risk associated with PFAS? Where are they coming from? And what is being done by the EPA, the Academy and others, to address the issue?

Risks and Occurrence of PFAS

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of more than 4,700 chemical compounds that have been produced since the 1940s. They have been linked to a growing list of illnesses including testicular and kidney cancers, thyroid and liver diseases, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and weakened childhood immunity.

PFAS have been detected in over 90 percent of human blood samples, including from infants, reflecting widespread human exposure.

PFAS have been used in a wide array of industrial and commercial applications including newspaper printing, metal plating, and firefighting foams, and in consumer products such as food packaging, dental floss and former formulations of TeflonTM and ScotchgardTM.

Sometimes referred to as “forever” chemicals, PFAS don’t break down easily and tend to accumulate over time in surface and groundwater, soil and organisms. PFAS have been found in the drinking water of over 16 million Americans across 33 states, and it is estimated that the water supplies of 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS even in the local water supply.

PFAS contamination has been detected in water, sediment and fish from the mainstem Delaware River and even the eggs of osprey nesting in the Delaware Bay.

What’s being done?

The production and use of some PFAS compounds have been voluntarily phased out over the past 12 years. However, new PFAS compounds are still being developed, the toxicity and persistence of which is largely unknown.

The federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which regulates new and existing chemicals, does not require applicants to provide toxicity data for new chemicals, leaving the burden of proof on the EPA to demonstrate a significant risk.

There is no federal PFAS drinking water standard for PFAS compounds. In 2016, the EPA did establish a non-enforceable lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for two of the most common compounds, PFOA and PFOS. But this level is considerably higher than safe levels recommended by many scientists.

Among the seven states that independently adopted their own drinking water standards for PFAS, New Jersey is commendable for having one of the earliest and lowest standards.

The new EPA action plan does not address the approval of new PFAS compounds or disclosure of PFAS use, formally classify PFAS as regulated hazardous substances, establish a legally enforceable limit for PFAS in drinking water, nor set a timeline for formal regulatory action.

What the action plan does promise is future proposals and interim regulations relating to PFAS clean-up, enforcement and monitoring and to support further research and communication.

Research and communication are key. Increasing scientific and public awareness of the extent and risks of PFAS contamination is already leading to increased state and federal funding targeting PFAS research and monitoring.

 There is a myriad of environmental, technological and health questions we’re still working to understand, from the fate, transport and accumulation of PFAS in the environment, to the toxicity and health risks of historic and new compounds, to the most effective technologies for disposal and remediation.

 On this front, Academy scientists are collaborating with colleagues at Drexel, Temple and Lockhaven universities and the U.S. Geological Survey to begin a study about how PFAS compounds accumulate in plants and animals in Philadelphia area streams. The results will help support the prediction and assessment of ecological risks of PFAS to aquatic ecosystems and to humans.

As the awareness and education of PFAS grows, so does the pressure for action. Ask your local representatives what they are doing to address PFAS. Continue to learn more about the science and policy of PFAS. And decide for yourself, has the EPA and are we, collectively, doing enough?

Here are links to information to learn more:

Where is PFAS Found in the USA?  Interactive map by the Environmental Working Group:

EPA PFAS Information webpages:

EPA 2/14/2019 News Release announcing PFAS Action Plan:

Delaware River Basin Commission information and reports on Contaminants of Emerging Concern (including PFAS):

By Marie J. Kurz, PhD, Senior Scientist and Biogeochemistry Section Leader, Academy of Natural Sciences

Top photo by Rich Horwitz/ANS

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