Toxic “Forever Chemicals” Found in Californian Drinking Water
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Drinking water sources for 74 community water systems serving 7.5 million Californians are contaminated with the highly toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, according to an Environmental Working Group review of the latest state data.
Very low doses of PFAS chemicals in drinking water have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, liver and thyroid disease, and other health problems. All of the detections in California water systems’ sources exceeded 1 part per trillion, or ppt, the safe level recommended by the best independent studies and endorsed by EWG.
More than 40 percent of the systems had at least one sample with a level of total PFAS over 70 ppt, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inadequate lifetime health advisory level for the two most notorious fluorinated chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. In addition to those two compounds, some California water systems detected up to six other PFAS chemicals.
More than 578 ppt of eight PFAS chemicals were detected this year in a well of the City of Corona water system, and more than 450 ppt of six PFAS in a well of the California Water Service Company system for Oroville. In 2017, more than 400 ppt of six PFAS was found in a well of the California American Water Company system for Rosemont and other Sacramento suburbs.
The water systems conducted the tests between 2013, when the EPA ordered one-time nationwide sampling for PFAS, and this year, as the state moves toward establishing its own health advisory levels for the two PFAS compounds covered by the EPA’s advisory.
EWG’s list shows not the current level of contamination in customers’ tap water, but rather the extent of contamination in drinking water sources identified since 2013. Maximum detection levels reported to the California State Water Board and the EPA are a snapshot of what was in the water when it was tested, not necessarily what is coming out of taps now.
Water systems may have taken contaminated wells offline, blended water from contaminated wells with cleaner sources, or installed water treatment to reduce PFAS levels. For example, Camp Pendleton’s 2017 water quality report stated that after one sample that year exceeded the EPA’s advisory level for PFOA and PFOS, the affected well was shut down.
But mitigation efforts do not make the problem go away. The costs of mitigating high PFAS levels are borne by the utility and often passed on to customers, and systems face challenges finding alternate sources of water when a source is shut down. At a time when clean water supplies in the state are at a high premium, communities across California are affected by the PFAS contamination crisis.
The earlier EPA-mandated tests had confirmed PFAS contamination in the tap water of 27 California water systems. The new detections reported to the state increase the number of California water systems with confirmed PFAS detections to 74. The water board recently ordered additional testing for some PFAS in water near airports, landfills and locations where PFAS were previously found.
PFAS contamination has been found in more than 800 communities, military bases, airports and industrial sites nationwide. EWG’s analysis of unreleased EPA-mandated test data estimates that more than 100 million Americans may have PFAS in their drinking water. Because PFAS are “forever chemicals” that never break down once released into the environment, they build up in our blood and organs. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, virtually all Americans have PFAS in their blood.
The EPA has not set a national legal limit for PFAS in drinking water supplies, only the non-enforceable and inadequate lifetime health advisory. Neither has California, despite calls to do so from EWG and more than two dozen other environmental and public health organizations.
The water board has asked the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, or OEHHA, to develop public health goals for PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard. The water board says regulations for other PFAS chemicals may be considered later.
While the state works toward developing health benchmarks for PFOA and PFOS, OEHHA has recommended that community water systems inform their customers if the levels of those chemicals exceed health-based notification levels, which it says should be set at “the lowest levels at which PFOA and PFOS can be reliably detected in drinking water.”
OEHHA’s recommendation to report all detections is based on a science review of pancreatic and liver cancer in animals, indicating that a concentration protective from a one-in-one-million cancer risk over a lifetime is at or below 0.1 ppt for PFOA and 0.4 ppt for PFOS. However, the water board set higher notification levels than OEHHA recommended – 5.1 ppt for PFOA and 6.5 ppt for PFOS.
Major sources of contamination are PFAS-based firefighting foams, industrial discharge of PFAS into the air and water, and PFAS in food packaging and other everyday consumer products. Once released into the environment, PFAS chemicals enter our bodies through food and drinking water, among other routes.
Despite the health risks of PFAS, there are no state or federal legal limits on releases of these chemicals into the environment or legal requirements to clean up legacy contamination.
Military and civilian firefighters continue to use PFAS firefighting foams that seep into drinking water supplies. Because these foams have been used for decades, hundreds of military installations are contaminated. Manufacturers continue to discharge PFAS into the air and water. Nearly 500 facilities nationwide are suspected of releases of PFAS chemicals, but these manufacturers are not subject to any environmental or reporting requirements. There is no federal requirement for water utilities to remove PFAS from tap water, or even test for PFAS in water.
Because PFAS have not been designated as “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund law, PFAS manufacturers are not required to clean up legacy PFAS contamination – even though companies like 3M and DuPont knowingly released PFAS chemicals for decades. Internal company documents show that manufacturers knew of the risks PFAS chemicals posed to their own workers and neighboring communities but failed to tell regulators.
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