In 2014, residents of Horsham Township, near Philadelphia, learned that their water had been contaminated with potentially toxic chemicals linked to an array of health problems, including learning delays in children and cancer. Those residents include Frank and Lisa Penna, who allege in a lawsuit that their water was among the contaminated supplies.
Known as PFAS, for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the chemicals in this class of approximately 5,000 substances have become notorious as much for their potential danger as for their perseverance. Because the chemical bonds that hold the compounds together don’t break down easily, they last a very long time – a reality that has led to a commonly used name for the group: “Forever chemicals.”
PFAS compounds are also ubiquitous, used in a range of products, from food-delivery boxes to nonstick cookware to stain-resistant clothing. But one of the most troubling routes to PFAS exposure is drinking water that has been contaminated by discharges from factories and other facilities.
Indeed, PFAS have been detected in the drinking water of more than 1,400 communities in 49 states, according to research by the PFAS Project at Northeastern University in Boston and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization that estimates that 110 million people may have tap water contaminated with the chemicals.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates US drinking water, has been investigating PFAS since the late 1990s. It set voluntary guidelines of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for two of the compounds combined that are most studied and believed to be dangerous: PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. (For context, 1 ppt is the equivalent of one grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, according to some estimates.)
But despite the agency’s 20-plus years of information gathering, it still has not issued an enforceable nationwide standard on PFAS. The agency has failed to act even as more about the risks of the chemical group has become known, and even as some scientists and environmental organizations have concluded that a far lower concentration of PFAS in water–1 ppt–is a more appropriate limit.
The EPA won’t comment on a proposed 1 ppt limit, saying it would be “inappropriate to prejudge the outcome” of a regulatory process now underway.
But David Andrews, senior scientist at the EWG, says the agency should enact the stringent standard. “The scientific research supports a value of 1 ppt or lower to be health-protective,” he says.
And an examination by Consumer Reports found that while the EPA’s power to regulate chemicals in water is limited, the agency has waffled for years. “The EPA hasn’t taken a science-based approach to this issue,” says Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy. “It’s imperative for Congress to pass legislation that establishes PFAS limits in drinking water.”
That lack of a national standard has implications not just for tap water but also for bottled. That’s because bottled water is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates contaminants in bottled water after the EPA sets a limit for tap water.
CR recently tested 47 bottled waters and detected PFAS in 43 of them. Carbonated waters were more likely to contain PFAS, with several–including Topo Chico, Bubly, and Polar–showing levels above the scientist-recommended 1 ppt limit.
A regulatory vacuum
Consumer watchdogs and researchers have long called for action on PFAS. “I first asked the EPA more than 19 years ago … and we are still waiting for a comprehensive, national response,” says Robert Bilott, an attorney who led a class action lawsuit in the 2000s that accused the chemical company DuPont of contaminating drinking water in the Ohio River Valley with PFAS.
That battle, which led to a court-ordered study of 69,000 residents that found significant health risks, was depicted in the 2019 movie Dark Waters. DuPont, while denying any wrongdoing, agreed in 2017 to pay $335m to settle the dispute.
Frank and Lisa Penna, the Horsham Township couple, allege one possible explanation for the EPA’s delay: the government itself is a major PFAS polluter and is avoiding substantial cleanup costs. In a 2016 lawsuit, the Pennas allege that PFAS migrated from the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove, near their home, into groundwater. Thousands of gallons of firefighting foam, which contains PFAS, had been dumped at the base during exercises over many years, they allege.
The Pennas also claim that tests of their private well found PFOA and PFOS levels of 298 ppt and 701 ppt, respectively–up to 10 times the EPA’s voluntary limit.
The Pennas’ case went to trial in August. Part of the government’s defense? It can’t be held liable because PFAS remain “unregulated”.
Navy spokesperson Lt Gabrielle Dimaapi declined to comment on the Penna case, citing ongoing litigation. But she says the navy has spent $200m investigating and responding to potential PFAS concerns and is “working collaboratively with our regulatory partners and concerned communities”.
America’s water crisis is a one-year series of reports and investigations, which launched in June 2020, highlighting the inequality, poverty, pollution and commercial forces that are at the heart of the country’s water crisis.
With our partners, we are investigating the growing crisis of water affordability, the growing concerns around contaminated water from a variety of contaminants, the problems with the rise of bottled water, and the politics around the push for change.
The series is an editorial partnership between the Guardian, Consumer Reports and Ensia. John Mulholland
Forty years of clues
In their lawsuit, the Pennas presented documents that they say show the government knew of the possible risks of PFAS for decades before the EPA moved to curtail their use –a claim the government denies. That includes a 1974 report commissioned by the air force that examined how to dispose of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), the technical name of firefighting foam, because air force environmental personnel had “expressed concern for disposing of AFFFs after use”.
Lt Ronald Kroop, who led the study, elaborated on those concerns in an August 2019 deposition: “It’s going in the ground,” he said. “That was acknowledged, accepted.” What wasn’t known – and needed to be – was the impact that might have, he attested.
The burdensome law
Part of the problem, researchers say, is that Congress has also made it hard for the EPA to act.
It wasn’t always so. When Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, it granted the EPA authority to regulate drinking water. Soon after, the agency adopted standards for about two dozen contaminants, according to research by James Salzman, an environmental law professor at UCLA.
But over the next two decades, water utilities began to push back, citing the high cost of removing contaminants, and in 1996, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act. The amendments “basically gutted the law,” making future regulation unlikely, says Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental organization.
The EPA says it has issued several drinking water regulations to “strengthen public health protection” since 1996, including revisions for arsenic, bacteria, and water served on airplanes.
But since then the EPA hasn’t implemented a new standard for a previously unregulated contaminant. “The agency has not been able to muster the energy or the political will to jump through all those hoops and regulate a single new chemical through that process in 24 years,” Olson says.
Thousands of compounds
Regulating PFAS presents special challenges for at least two reasons: Thousands of the compounds are already in use, and manufacturers keep introducing new ones, though it’s unclear whether they are any safer.
As a possible solution to those problems, researchers argued in a June letter to the journal Environmental Science & Technology that the government should manage PFAS as a “chemical class”–in other words, one standard for all related compounds.
“It takes 20 years to even consider regulating one, and we’ve got thousands,” says Olson at the NRDC. “It will be literally geologic time before we see regulation of most of them.” Worsening the problem is that while some companies have stopped using PFOA and PFOS, many are replacing them with less-studied PFAS compounds.
It will be literally geologic time before we see regulation of most of themErik Olson
The FluoroCouncil, an industry group, says that these newer chemicals are safer and that regulating them as a class isn’t reasonable, because “many PFAS chemistries have very different profiles from PFOS and PFOA.”
But the letter from researchers in Environmental Science & Technology said that replacement PFAS can be “equally environmentally persistent.” Other research suggests that those replacements are linked to similar adverse human health effects.
The case for a lower level
Advocates and researchers who support the 1 ppt limit for PFAS in drinking water point to growing research linking even very small amounts to potential harm, as well as the compounds’ persistence in the environment.
One key piece of evidence is a 2013 study partly funded by the EPA and led by Harvard environmental health professor Philippe Grandjean that showed a decreased vaccine response in children exposed to PFAS. Grandjean’s paper recommended a drinking water limit for PFAS of 1 ppt.
Last year, the EWG recommended 1 ppt for all PFAS, citing Grandjean’s work along with other research associating the compounds with delayed mammary gland development in rodents.
The FluoroCouncil disagrees. “The science does not support a 1 ppt level,” the group says.
But some experts say even 1 ppt is too high. The NRDC, in a 2019 report (PDF), acknowledged that toxicity data is limited but said that a zero tolerance is needed “to provide an adequate margin of safety to protect public health from a class of chemicals that is characterized by extreme persistence, high mobility, and is associated with a multitude of different types of toxicity at very low levels of exposure.”
Jamie DeWitt, a PFAS researcher in the department of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine in Greenville, North Carolina, agrees. “We shouldn’t have these compounds in the environment,” he says. “We shouldn’t have these compounds in our body.”
How to address PFAS
Consumers can take some steps to limit their exposure to PFAS, including testing their home water, filtering their water, choosing bottled waters carefully, and avoiding products that contain the compounds.
But consumers can’t solve the PFAS problem alone, says Alissa Cordner, co-director of the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University. Though industry bears some responsibility, it’s unlikely to act without government action, she says.
Ideally, the EPA should set limits on PFAS in drinking water, says CR’s Brian Ronholm. But because that could take years, Congress should mandate more immediate action, he says.
Arlene Blum, executive director of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute, suggests that states can act more quickly to tackle the problem. “The amount of hoops that the federal government has to go through makes it really difficult,” she says.
A few states have set PFAS limits below the EPA’s 70 ppt advisory, according to American Water Works, an industry group. In 2019, Vermont set a 20 ppt limit for five PFAS compounds combined, while New Hampshire passed limits on PFOA (12 ppt) and PFOS (15 ppt). At least nine others have proposed PFAS standards.
But Linda Birnbaum, the recently retired director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science and now a scholar-in-residence in the department of environmental sciences and policy at Duke University, says there is an even simpler solution.
“I keep asking: why the heck are we making chemicals that are never going to go away?”
This story is co-published in partnership with Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with any advertiser on this site