PFAS in Drinking Water Widespread, Toxic, New Studies Find

New studies by scientists reviewing 26 types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found that they all display at least one characteristic of cancer-causing chemicals that can alter crucial bodily functions.

PFAS are a broad family of fluoride-based plastics, the most notoriously toxic being PFOA and PFOS, which figured in lawsuits over alleged contamination by the 3M plant in Decatur. Widespread use of those chemicals went into applications for non-stick materials like Teflon and the Scotchgard brand of stain-proofing for upholstery.

The Environmental Protection Agency was first alerted to the problem of PFAS in drinking water in 2001 but has declined to set an enforceable, nationwide legal limit. In 2016, EPA issued a non-enforceable lifetime health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water of 70 part per trillion (ppt). The Environmental Working Group recommends a safe level of 1 ppt, especially for children and individuals with health problems.

The new toxicity studies, financed by the Environmental Working Group, were released March 3 and followed a January study underwritten by EWG that found a broad range of PFAS in samples of tap water across the country.

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In the 43 samples where PFAS were detected in tap water, the total levels varied from less than 1 ppt in Seattle and Tuscaloosa, to almost 186 ppt in Brunswick County, N.C.

In Alabama, the researchers took samples from 17 sites — drinking water utilities, airports and military bases — and found levels of total PFAS ranging from 122,000 ppt in the groundwater at Gunter Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery to 1.9 ppt at Redstone Arsenal.

In January, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 247-159 to pass HR 535, which would direct the EPA to designate, within one year, PFAS for coverage by the federal Superfund law. This bill now goes to the Senate, which has not yet voted on it. Alabama’s Rep. Terri Sewell voted for HR 535. Republican Reps. Bradley Byrne, Martha Roby, Mike Rogers, Mo Brooks and Gary Palmer voted against the bill. Rep. Robert Aderholt did not vote.

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