By Peter Chawaga
Those of us who pay close attention to the latest in water quality concerns, and even many of those who don’t, have heard a lot about perfluorinated compound (PFC) contamination lately.
Instances of PFC contamination are in the news so often that it may come as a shock to learn that to date, the issue has actually been underreported. But that is the thrust of a report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) this month.
“Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that 1 percent of samples from public drinking water systems nationwide were contaminated with PFOA, a nonstick chemical formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon,” the report reads. “But the same company that analyzed many of those samples now says that more than 20 percent of the samples were likely contaminated.”
The Problem With PFCs
PFCs, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), have found their way into drinking water supplies via two main avenues: through their use as industrial chemicals necessary for producing things like Teflon and as components of firefighting foam used by the military. These may seem like fairly esoteric sources of contamination, but to date, PFCs have infected the water for thousands of consumers and carried with them serious health risks.
“Americans exposed to PFOA in the area around a DuPont manufacturing facility in West Virginia were found to be at increased risk for kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and pregnancy-induced hypertension,” said Dr. David Andrews, a senior scientist with EWG. “The concern for exposure to PFOA in drinking water at even lower concentrations is the reduced effectiveness of vaccines and impacts on infant and childhood development.”
While the U.S. EPA has issued health advisories of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, it is still evaluating health effects before deciding whether or not to ban the chemicals outright or establish more significant restrictions.
The EPA had Eurofins Eaton Analytical evaluate more than 10,000 water samples collected between 2013 and 2015 for the presence of PFCs and the company determined that only about 1 percent were contaminated. But when Eurofins looked more closely at those samples for a smaller minimum level of contamination, it found that more than 20 percent of the samples contained some presence of PFCs.
“We are just now finding out that the EPA mandate sampling failed to identify contamination that was 10 times more common at levels just slightly lower than reported but still concerning,” Andrews said. “The EPA and state regulators should act now to get these chemicals out of our drinking water and protect public health.”
Solving The Problem
There are two sides to the argument that the EPA should outright ban the presence of PFCs in drinking water. Groups like EWG argue that contaminants should never have been allowed to enter water supplies in the first place and that their presence, no matter how trace, unnecessarily puts consumers at risk. The EPA would argue that more scientific research is needed before the substances can be banned from drinking water and treatment operations might say that they don’t have the equipment necessary to eliminate them.
But the EWG is bolstered by the revelation that PFCs are 20 times more prevalent than previously thought, hoping that this will sway more toward its way of thinking.
“The recently uncovered prevalence of contamination will increase the pressure on our federal government to set a legal standard nationwide,” said Andrews. “A federal standard will ensure that utilities serving contaminated water invest in treatment technology or change their water supply.”
These limits have already been instituted by states that are having the hardest time with PFCs. In Vermont and New Jersey, both of which have struggled with especially high levels of PFCs in drinking water, regulators have taken action to establish their own, stricter limit on the contaminants. These moves may inspire other communities to act in the absence of a decision from the EPA.
“The limit in Vermont and the proposed limits in New Jersey should be used as a benchmark for water utilities to evaluate the quality of their water,” Andrews said. “In practice, utilities and residents should be evaluating drinking water contaminants with respect to health-based limits, not just legal limits.”
Fundamentally, EWG also sees some problems with how the EPA goes about testing for and restricting contaminants in drinking water, which have come to light in this latest failure to accurately identify the number of samples that contained PFCs.
“[The failure was] that, in part due to pressure from the chemical industry and in part due to the method EPA uses to set a reporting level, the vast majority of detections went unreported to EPA,” Andrews said. “In all future testing for water contaminants, the EPA should require all results down to the limit of detection even if that level varies by laboratory.”
EWG would also like to see some changes made to one of the EPA’s fundamental pieces of legislation.
“The amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act passed in 1996 limited the EPA to testing for 30 unregulated contaminants,” said Andrews. “The EPA included six PFCs on the recent testing program from 2013 to 2015, but the EPA method that labs were required to use can detect 14 PFC chemicals with no change in effort. In the nationwide sampling results, nearly every result was thrown out and never provided to the EPA except for the very high levels of contamination.”
Asking for changes to a federal law like the Safe Drinking Water Act is no small task and one that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. And the agency would likely have a different take on the need to set a lower reporting limit.
But any consumer who now discovers that their water is contaminated with PFCs will almost certainly demand action to treat their water and to stop something like this from happening again in the future. Without forthcoming federal action, it looks like those demands will have to be met at the local level for now.