National survey reveals 45% of U.S. tap water may contain 'forever chemicals'

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The study included tests of both private and public water sources

Recent studies have highlighted the risks associated with per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), or what has commonly been known as “forever chemicals.” 

These substances have been used in everything from food and cosmetic packaging and are often used to fight stains or help make things waterproof. They are also linked with a number of health risks for consumers of all ages. 

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) found that around 45% of all tap water in the United States contains traces of PFAS. 

“USGS scientists tested water collected directly from people’s kitchen sinks across the nation, providing the most comprehensive study to date on PFAS in tap water from both private wells and public supplies,” said Kelly Smalling, USGS research hydrologist, lead author of the study. “The study estimates that at least one type of PFAS – of those that were monitored – could be present in nearly half the tap water in the U.S. Furthermore, PFAS concentrations were similar between public supplies and private wells.” 

Which areas were most affected? 

The researchers collected water samples from 716 sites across the country – 269 private wells and 447 public supplies – between 2016 and 2021. The collection sites included protected lands that have low human impact, rural and residential areas, and urban areas. 

After collection, three different labs ran tests on the water samples to assess their PFAS levels. The USGS was testing for nearly three dozen different types of PFAS – though there are 12,000 variations of the chemicals. 

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the study is that at least one type of PFAS was present in 45% of the samples taken. Three types of PFAS were the most common, appearing in 15% of the samples – PFBS, PFHxS, and PFOA.

While private wells and public water supplies yielded similar PFAS results, the researchers did learn that certain areas across the country are more likely to have contaminated water than others.

Urban areas proved to be the biggest culprits, including: central/southern California, the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, and across the East Coast.

What does this mean? 

PFAS got the name “forever chemicals” because they never degrade in the environment – they contaminate drinking water, soil, air, food, and just about everything. This ultimately becomes problematic for consumers’ health. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are several risk factors consumers should know when they’re exposed to these chemicals. PFAS have been found to significantly affect the body’s hormone levels. This, in turn, can affect women’s reproductive health, increase the risk of pregnancy complications, or even lead to developmental delays in children. 

Additionally, there is a higher risk of cancer, high cholesterol, obesity and an overall poorer immune response. 

The researchers explained that the only way to know if your water supply is contaminated is to have it tested. 

"Filtering your drinking water at home is an easy way to reduce exposure to PFAS and other contaminants,” Tasha Stoiber, EWG's Senior Scientist, told ConsumerAffairs. “Reverse osmosis or active carbon-based filters work well specifically to remove PFAS. It may take some time for federal regulations for PFAS to be finalized, so filtering your water at home is a good idea. Ultimately it should be the polluters that pay to clean up drinking water, and those costs should not fall on individuals or communities."

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