The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday called for putting limits on drinking water levels of two long-lasting contaminants linked to low birth weight, thyroid disorders, and cancer.
“Public notification is especially important for pregnant or nursing women because of the impact these chemicals can have on the development of fetuses and breastfed or formula-fed infants,” EPA’s Joel Beauvais said in the announcement.
“A lot of places are about to learn they have exposures in excess of the EPA’s recommendation, not just industrial places,” Arlene Blum, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a huge mess. A lot of people are going to need bottled water.”
Indeed, EPA data found that 63 drinking water systems in 22 states (as well as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands) have reported levels of these fluorinated compounds above the new EPA recommendations (combined concentrations of 70 parts per trillion) since 2013. The water systems range from part of Chico, California, to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, to one in Suffolk County, New York, serving more than 1 million people.
EPA officials noted that some water systems test less often than others, and that some may have lowered their levels since the last time they submitted data.
U.S. Counties That Have Water Systems Exceeding New EPA Guidelines
Click here to see the specific water systems affected in each county.
However, the compounds last over “geologic” timescales in the environment, environmental toxicologist Jennifer Field of Oregon State University in Corvallis told BuzzFeed News. Rather than degrading to safe levels, they build up their toxicity over time.
“They leak from old, unlined landfills, and every time there’s a firefighting training at an airport or a military base,” Field said.
Although recent reports of high fluorinated compound contamination near former factories in West Virginia, New York, and Georgia, have made headlines, widespread use of the compounds in firefighting foam at airports and military bases may have contaminated many more places.
“They can travel long distances in groundwater and they last a very, very long time,” environmental chemist Christopher Higgins of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden told BuzzFeed News. “The big concern is plumes reaching drinking water wells.”
“It’s significant that they are looking at these two in combination as a risk, because they are usually found together,” Field said. “My scientific opinion is we need to go beyond just looking for them in drinking water and determine their origins.”
A major dilemma is that there are no good replacements for the chemicals in fire-fighting foams used by airports and fire departments everywhere, she added. With regular exercises, airport and community firefighters may be washing the chemicals regularly into soil where they train.
“They have to put out fires,” she said, adding that many military and fire departments have made efforts to cut release of the foams.
Outside the U.S., 152 countries have signed on to the 2001 Stockholm Convention meant to restrict or eliminate fluorinated chemicals related to PFOA and PFOS from the environment. Overall, concentrations of the chemicals have dropped in people’s bloodstreams worldwide, outside of contaminated regions. The U.S. has signed, but not ratified, that agreement.
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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