Six Million Americans Exposed To Unsafe Drinking Water

Industrial chemicals linked to cancer have been found in high concentrations in a large swath of the nation's water supply

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Aug 10, 2016 at 5:04 PM ET

Six million Americans have already been exposed to unsafe drinking water, according to a new study in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Researchers found that a staggering number of drinking water supplies across the country contained unsafe levels of chemicals known as PFASs, which have been linked to cancer. “For many years, chemicals with unknown toxicities, such as PFASs, were allowed to be used and released to the environment, and we now have to face the severe consequences,” said coauthor Xindi Hu of Harvard University, in a press release.

“The actual number of people exposed may be even higher than our study found.”

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Companies have been trying to cut back on the use of perfluoroalkyl substances (or PFASs) for the better part of a decade. In 2002 the single largest manufacturer of PFASs voluntarily closed shop, and only four years later a joint effort by the Environmental Protection Agency and several major corporations helped phase out the harmful chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives. Nowadays, U.S.-made products seldom contain PFASs. Prior to the crackdown, however, PFASs could be found in food wrappers, clothing, kitchenware, and almost all Teflon products.

Nonetheless, PFASs persist in our drinking water and studies suggest that high concentrations may cause cancer, hormone disruption, high cholesterol, and obesity. So Hu and her team examined six types of PFASs in drinking water supplies, using data from more than 36,000 water samples collected by the EPA between 2013 and 2015. They found that 66 of the public water supplies—serving six million people—exceeded EPA limits, with the highest concentrations of PFASs found near industrial sites, military bases, and wastewater treatment plants. Warminster, Pennsylvania and Newark, Delaware stood out as the two cities with the most tainted water.

Worse, the authors note that roughly 100 million U.S. individuals rely on either private drinking water wells or smaller public water supplies that are not included in the EPA data. This means that “information about drinking water PFAS exposures is therefore lacking for almost one-third of the U.S. population,” the authors write. “Government data for levels of these compounds in drinking water is lacking for almost a third of the U.S. population—about 100 million people.”

Although the EPA itself recognizes that PFASs are, “toxic to laboratory animals and wildlife,” the chemicals remain on the organization’s list of unregulated reagents. Hu hopes that this study will raise awareness of the scope of the problem, galvanize public health officials to conduct further studies, and, in time, formally push the U.S. government toward regulation of PFAS in public water supplies. “I think there is enough evidence to be concerned about these compounds in drinking water,” Hu told CBS News. “I would encourage people to conduct more studies.”

Here’s a breakdown of the locations in the United States that have detectable concentrations of PFASs in the local drinking water supply, courtesy of the study authors: