As of March, toxic levels of PFAS were found in 610 locations, including drinking water sites and military sites, in 43 states, according to a new study released May 6 by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute. According to the researchers, 43 states have locations, including drinking water sites, contaminated with PFAS chemicals. The CDC says these chemicals have been linked to health issues that include birth defects, cancers and infertility.
PFAS, otherwise known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are manufactured chemicals used since the 1940s to create items ranging from cleaning products and water repellants to food packaging and paint.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the substances can increase cancer risk and affect the immune system, fertility, hormone levels and children’s physical and mental development.
“This should be frightening to all Americans in many ways,” David Andrews, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, told CBS News. “These chemicals… don’t break down in our body and they don’t break down in our environment and they actually stick to our blood. So levels tend to increase over time.”
Heightened cholesterol levels are one of the most prevalent findings in people exposed to PFAS, the Environmental Protection Agency says. According to the EPA, PFASs are used in a broad range of consumer goods, such as cleaners, textiles, leather, paper and paints, firefighting foams, and wire insulation.
“These chemicals can impact a lot of different health systems, cause numerous health problems, everything from testicular and kidney cancer, heart to the liver, heart to the thyroid,” Andrews said, adding that the chemicals can also impact childhood development, low birth weight and immune system health.
Aside from the prevalence of PFAS in everyday products, a major challenge of eradicating the substances is that they are not biodegradable, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.”
The Environmental Working Group said in a statement that its interactive map is the most comprehensive resource available to track contamination with a class of chemicals known as in the United States.
The map of contaminated sites across the U.S. provided by the study and created using data from the EPA, the Defense Department and Northeastern University, shows that drinking water systems throughout Michigan were hit hardest. Most of those cases were not close to Flint, the city that is still recovering from a water crisis that began in 2014.
There were additional clusters of cases on the Northeast coast, in the Southeast and along the West Coast.
“The updated map shows that PFAS contamination is truly a nationwide problem, impacting millions of Americans in hundreds of communities,” said Phil Brown, a professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University and director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute.
This report comes less than one week after another study by the Environmental Working Group claimed a collection of toxic chemical pollutants found in California drinking water could be responsible for an excess of 15,000 estimated cancer cases over the coming decades. Scientists published that study in the journal Environmental Health after finding toxins and carcinogens in more than 2,700 California community water systems between 2011 and 2015. Many farm workers in California’s Central Valley have to buy bottled water because their tap water contains unsafe levels of arsenic and agricultural chemicals that have been linked to elevated risks of infant death and cancer in adults.
A review of drinking water contaminants regulations show the EPA has two categories of drinking water standards: a primary standard which focuses on harmful containments in water, and a secondary standard which focuses on water that causes skin and tooth discoloration and has either poor taste, odor or color.
According to the Environmental Working Group, the EPA does not have a legally enforceable limit for PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
“The EPA has set a health advisory value, but it’s not a legal binding limit,” Andrews told CBS News. “Part of the problem is they haven’t set a new legal drinking water limit for any contaminant in over two decades. The whole system of regulating chemicals that may end up in our water and setting limits is broken and the agency is really falling behind the science here.”
In February, the EPA unveiled its action plan to address PFAS chemicals ― a multipronged effort focusing in part on research, cleanup recommendations and making more data publicly accessible.
However, critics say there is already enough data to justify regulatory action from the EPA.
In a statement, EWG President Ken Cook claimed the EPA had “utterly failed to address PFAS with the seriousness this crisis demands, leaving local communities and states to grapple with a complex problem rooted in the failure of the federal chemical regulatory system.”
“EPA must move swiftly to set a truly health-protective legal limit for all PFAS chemicals, requiring utilities to clean up contaminated water supplies,” he added.
To avoid coming in contact with PFAS, EWG advises staying away from microwavable popcorn bags and limiting fast food intake, since fast-food packaging tends to be treated with PFAS. Consumers should also be cautious when buying waterproof clothing, nonstick pans and stain-repellent furniture and carpeting.
In a statement responding to HuffPost, the EPA suggested EWG’s map could be misleading and questioned the accuracy of its data, noting that the graphic “seems to show any samples for PFAS chemicals that have been collected, which may or may not be detections.”
“Because EPA has not fully reviewed the quality of the underlying data, and based on the agency’s commitment to good risk communication with the public, EPA cannot recommend the map be used to determine where public health risks associated with PFAS chemicals may or may not exist,” the agency added, emphasizing its action plan instead:
“EPA’s robust efforts which have either been taken or are committed to in the Action Plan build on the agency’s 70 ppt drinking water health advisory for PFOA and PFOS that was issued in 2016. Since issuing the health advisory, EPA has taken action, including issuing orders under the Safe Drinking Water Act Section 1431 and is working with states and responsible parties to protect public health.”