Your water may be full of "forever chemicals" — and the EPA isn't even testing for many of them

The compounds used in nonstick pans and water-resistant coatings do nasty things when they get in your blood

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 14, 2023 5:00AM (EDT)

 (Terraxplorer / Getty Images)
(Terraxplorer / Getty Images)

The term "forever chemical" might sound ominous, but there is a good reason for that. Formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), so-called forever chemicals are used in hundreds of common products for water-proofing and stain-resistance. They're also linked to a tremendous number of health problems, including liver and fertility issues.

Now, a new study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment revealed that dozens of PFAS are quietly lurking in many municipal drinking water — and residents many not even be aware, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is failing to monitor almost half of them.

"We will be running on a toxic treadmill, trying to regulate 14,000 or more PFAS and never finishing the job."

In the study of PFAS in the water supply, researchers for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tested water samples from communities in 16 states. More than two-thirds of the samples (30 out of 44) contained PFAS, and every single one of those contaminated samples had at least one PFAS compound that would not be captured by the EPA's existing monitoring standards. Overall, there were 26 PFAS found within the contaminated samples, 12 of which are not covered by the current testing methods utilized by the EPA. The most common PFAS discovered was perfluoropropionic acid (PFPrA), which like most other perfluoroalkyl acids is commonly found in water-and-stain-resistant coatings for furniture, leather, carpets and various fabrics.

"The majority of unmonitored PFAS found in this study are newer generation PFAS that are being used as replacements for legacy PFAS like PFOA and PFOS," study co-authors Dr. Katie Pelch, a scientist at NRDC and Dr. Anna Reade, a senior scientist at NRDC, told Salon by email. "Scientists, policymakers, and regulators struggle to keep pace with the rate of industry's unchecked production and use of new PFAS. The detection of a significant number of PFAS not monitored by EPA is part a reflection of this reality."

It is not unusual for chemical companies to avoid environmental regulations by replacing one banned chemical with a slightly different alternative that is nevertheless essentially the same. This practice is known as regrettable substitution; as Dr. Sara Brosché, Science Advisor with IPEN, told Salon last month, "every time one of these PFAS molecules are getting regulated, the industry just comes up with a new one that is slightly shorter or slightly different, but it still has basically the same function and the same health impacts." This is why environmentalists like those at NRDC and IPEN have called for the EPA to ban the entire class of these dangerous chemicals instead of just individual chemicals.

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The most common PFAS discovered was perfluoropropionic acid (PFPrA)... commonly found in water-and-stain-resistant coatings for furniture, leather, carpets and various fabrics.

Indeed, as Pelch and Reade told Salon, scientists cannot say for sure whether the new PFAS are linked to health issues because they are new. That said, PFAS as a class are linked to health problems including lowered sperm count in male fetuses, difficulties with pregnancies, high blood pressure, liver disease and testicular and kidney cancer, among other ailments.

"Less is known about the health harms linked to these newer PFAS, but they share chemical similarities with well established toxic PFAS, leading health experts to be concerned about their potential to cause health harms," Pelch and Reade explained. "With increasing levels of any PFAS exposure there is an increasing risk to public health."

The EPA told Salon by email that it had not reviewed the study and could not comment on its findings. In response to criticisms of its policies for monitoring PFAS, the EPA defended its record in protecting the public from PFAS. "As new science becomes available, EPA will continue to consider and update its findings through its regulatory processes in order to improve public health protection," they wrote. The agency also described their move to regulate six individual dangerous PFAS as "a key step to protect public health by proposing to establish legally enforceable levels for six PFAS known to occur in drinking water, fulfilling a foundational commitment in the Agency's PFAS Strategic Roadmap."

Pelch and Reade agreed that the EPA "took a historic step by proposing strong standards for 6 individual PFAS. When finalized, these will be the first new standards issued using EPA's unregulated contaminant regulatory authority since 1996, when the Safe Drinking Water Act was substantially weakened." At the same time, they insisted that the agency "needs to regulate the full class of PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act by adopting a total PFAS drinking water standard. Otherwise, we will be running on a toxic treadmill, trying to regulate 14,000 or more PFAS and never finishing the job."
They added, "We are pleased to hear that EPA is open to updating their findings and methods — the science is always evolving and moving forward and our study demonstrates an update in EPA's monitoring methods and approach is needed."

Liz Costello MPH, a PhD student at the University of Southern California who was not involved in the recent study but has studied PFAS, praised the new report.

"This is an important study that really highlights the difficulties in monitoring water sources for PFAS, as well as the need for much stricter regulation than we have currently," Costello told Salon by email. "It's especially striking that this study found so many different kinds of PFAS in these samples, and that many of these are not included in the EPA's monitoring requirements. The problem of PFAS contamination in our water is probably much larger than we previously thought."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Environment Epa Forever Chemicals Furthering Pfas Pollution Water