Revealed: US water likely contains more ‘forever chemicals’ than EPA tests show

In May 2021, a celebration for the new $17 million Portsmouth, New Hampshire water treatment facility drew local and national officials who said water from the city ​​was free of toxic “chemicals forever.”

Fire-fighting foam at nearby Pease Air Force Base had polluted the water for decades with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and in recognition of the threat to public health, the U.S. military funded the new city ​​filtration system.

Officials said that after implementing the improved filtration, testing no longer found detectable levels of PFAS chemicals in the water. They called the work in Portsmouth a ‘national model’ for tackling PFAS contamination in water.

“We are here to celebrate clean water,” Senator Maggie Hassan said at the time.

But the water may not be clean after all.

A Guardian analysis of water samples taken in Portsmouth and eight other places in the United States shows that the type of water analysis relied on by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA ) – and officials in cities like Portsmouth – is so limited. scope that it is likely missing significant levels of PFAS pollutants.

The undercount leaves regulators with an incomplete picture of the extent of PFAS contamination and reveals how millions of people may face an unknown health risk in their drinking water.

The analysis checked water samples from PFAS hotspots across the country with two types of tests: an EPA-developed method that detects 30 types of the approximately 9,000 PFAS compounds, and another that looks for a marker of all PFAS.

The Guardian found that seven out of nine samples collected had higher levels of PFAS in the water using the test that identifies PFAS markers than the levels found when the water was tested using the EPA method – and at concentrations up to 24 times higher.

“The EPA is doing the bare minimum it can and that’s putting people’s health at risk,” said Kyla Bennett, policy director of the public employees advocacy group for environmental responsibility.

Links to cancer

PFAS are a class of chemicals that have been used since the 1950s to make thousands of products that repel water, stains and heat. They are often called “eternal chemicals” because they do not break down completely and accumulate in the environment, humans and animals. Some are toxic at very low levels and have been linked to cancer, birth defects, kidney disease, liver problems, decreased immunity, and other serious health issues.

The Biden administration announced new actions in June to protect drinking water from PFAS contamination, saying the chemicals “pose a serious threat in rural, suburban and urban areas.” The administration has allocated $10 billion to specifically address PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water.

But critics say that when it comes to identifying PFAS-contaminated water, the limits of the test used by state and federal regulators, which is called EPA Method 537, virtually guarantee that regulators won’t will never have a full picture of contamination levels as industry produces new compounds much faster than researchers can develop the science to measure them.

This further incentivizes the industry to move away from older compounds: if chemical companies produce new PFAS, regulators won’t be able to find the pollution.

“The industry was 70 years ahead and we’re never going to catch up,” said University of Notre Dame researcher Graham Peaslee.

graph showing higher PFAS levels using TOF test compared to EPA 537

Many researchers consider a type of test known as “total organic fluoride” (TOF), which detects a PFAS marker called organic fluoride, as the most accurate way to test water samples.

The European Union is proposing to move to a TOF test, and states such as Maine, which plan to regulate PFAS as a class instead of regulating individual compounds, will need more robust testing to enforce their laws.

“TOF isn’t the ultimate solution, but it tells us there’s more fluoride out there, and we need to look for it,” Peaslee said.

Last year, drinking water advocacy groups urged the EPA to use more comprehensive testing which they said would “give us a better understanding of the totality of PFAS contamination,” but the agency told the Guardian that it currently has no such plan.

In a statement to the Guardian, the EPA said it “continues to conduct research and monitor advances in analytical methodologies…that may improve our ability to measure more PFAS.”

For researchers worried about PFAS contamination, that’s not enough.

“We research and study less than 1% of PFAS, so what is that 99%? Peaslee asked.I’ve never seen a good PFAS, so they’re all going to have some toxicity.

Guardian Sampling

The samples analyzed for the Guardian were taken from municipal networks and private wells. An accredited lab performed the EPA 537 test, while Peaslee verified the samples using a TOF method he developed.

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire water, levels were 10 parts per trillion (ppt) found in the EPA 537 test and 164ppt found in the TOF test.

Water samples taken from Titusville, Florida also showed wide disparity – the EPA 537 test found PFAS at 16ppt, while the TOF test found PFAS levels at 176ppt. In Bethesda, Maryland, the results were 18ppt from the government-preferred test and 185ppt from the TOF.

Similar results were seen in sampling from other communities, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona, and Massachusetts.

Although the EPA does not have limits in place for mixtures of PFAS compounds, many public health advocates say that any level above 1ppt is not safe.

One of the samples in the Guardian analysis – water from Oscoda, Michigan – showed 13.7ppt in the EPA 537 test and 0 (not detected) for the TOF test. Testing a sample from Gustavus, Alaska found 127 ppt in the EPA 537 test, and a lower amount – 102 ppt – in the TOF test, considered within the margin of error.

The EPA and industry have long maintained that many new PFASs that cannot be detected are safe. However, most new compounds have not been independently tested, and the types of PFAS that have been studied have been shown to be toxic and persistent in the environment, Bennett said.

“There are so many PFAS that we know nothing about, and if we don’t know anything about them, how do we know they don’t harm us?” Bennett asked. “Why are we laughing?”

The test results for Portsmouth, where water tested by the TOF method found levels about 16 times higher than the EPA 537 method found, are likely due to a combination of issues, Peaslee said.

Although the firefighting foam used at Pease Air Force Base and elsewhere is largely made up of PFAS compounds that the EPA test can detect, the chemicals, once in the environment, break down into different PFAS compounds that do not cannot be detected.

It is also possible that other sources are polluting the water in the area with newer PFAS that cannot be read by the EPA test.

The results are “surprising”, said Andrea Amico, a public health advocate who in 2014 first sounded the alarm over Portsmouth’s PFAS contamination.

“It left me with more questions about what makes up that total and makes me want more testing in my community,” she added.

Health problems

In the area around Cape Canaveral, Florida, which includes Titusville, suspected PFAS contamination from two military bases and Nasa facilities is at the root of their health concerns.

As of 2019, Titusville utility officials have not reported any PFAS in the city’s drinking water or said detections were at levels considered safe by regulators. But TOF analysis for the Guardian detected 176ppt in the water there.

Among the water samples taken for the Guardian, some came from the home of a Titusville resident who suffers from thyroid problems, a condition linked to exposure to PFAS. The resident, who declined to be named, cannot afford a water filtration system, a situation which highlights the fact that many low-income people may be more at risk than those with higher incomes .

“They have used [the EPA 537] results as a hedge,” said Stel Bailey, who has suffered from PFAS-related illnesses such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma and works with drinking water advocacy group Fight for Zero. “We need better testing technology to know what to focus on.”

Contamination from the airport and military installations has also plagued Tucson, Arizona, for years, and new measures put in place by state and local authorities are believed to largely eradicate the problem.

But while water on the south side of the city showed just 2ppt in the EPA 537 test, the TOF found a level 24 times higher, according to the Guardian’s analysis. That means PFAS remains a concern for Tucson resident Mary Ann Granillo, who has lupus, a PFAS-related illness that has already killed two members of her family.

Granillo said she couldn’t afford a water filtration system and bottled water was an expensive addition to her monthly bills. The family washes dishes, cleans clothes and showers with contaminated water. She fears that nothing will change.

“It really worries me a lot,” she said.

This project was funded by the Society Of Environmental Journalists and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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