As EPA stalls, 43 states have water sites contaminated with toxic chemicals

Toxic chemicals found in nonstick cooking pans and other household items have contaminated more than 600 water sources across at least 43 states, according to a new report, with Michigan by far the most impacted.

The findings underscore the wider water crisis facing the United States and are likely to increase pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enact stricter limits on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), toxic chemicals that can increase the risk of cancer and other severe health problems.

New analysis published Monday by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Northeastern University finds that 610 water sources across the country contain PFAS. The water systems include drinking water sources that serve upwards of 19 million people, along with military and industrial sites, dumps, and airports. PFAS itself is found in everything from firefighting foam to rain jackets.

Using data from sources including the federal Safe Drinking Water Information System and the Pentagon, the authors mapped the nationwide prevalence of PFAS. The version released Monday reflects an updated map — the last version was released in July 2018 and found 172 contaminated sites in 40 states. And it is likely that the new report still doesn’t account for many contaminated sites around the country.

“We believe the locations shown on our map may be only the tip of a toxic iceberg,” said Bill Walker, EWG vice president and editor in chief, in an email to ThinkProgress.

Michigan, a state grappling with ongoing water crises, stands out as the most severely impacted state. The updated map identifies 192 contaminated sites in Michigan alone, the vast majority of which are drinking water sources.

An ongoing lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, is the state’s most well-known water problem. The city’s residents say that five years after their water first became contaminated, they are still experiencing health impacts associated with Flint’s water, like rashes and headaches. But PFAS has also become a problem in the state — last July, two communities in Kalamazoo County were given bottled water after their drinking source was found to contain dangerously high levels of the chemicals.

Under scrutiny over water issues in the aftermath of Flint, state officials have been hard at work testing the water for chemicals in an effort to identify the scope of the PFAS problem. That work has been critical; EWG credited a multi-agency effort overseen by the state as helping to identify impacted areas. Michigan environmental officials have said there may be as many as 11,000 PFAS-contaminated sites in the state.

According to the new report, California comes in second after Michigan with 47 known sites, while New Jersey is third with 43 sites. But Walker of EWG told ThinkProgress that without efforts like those underway in Michigan, gauging the full scale of the problem is a challenge.

“Most other states have not conducted the kind of comprehensive multi-agency detection effort that Michigan has,” he said.

For years, communities in states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania have struggled with staggering cancer rates and other health problems, trends residents now link to PFAS exposure. They have repeatedly lobbied for the EPA to act and several told ThinkProgress in March that they feel the agency is not doing enough — even as EPA officials argue the agency is taking the crisis seriously.

In February, then-Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler unveiled an “action plan” to tackle PFAS following more than two decades of alarm from impacted communities. But Wheeler’s announcement failed to establish a Maximum Containment Level (MCL) for PFAS in drinking water, something advocates say is critical to addressing the crisis. Currently, the agency has a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion that applies to only two types of PFAS: PFOA and PFOS. Health experts have said that PFAS chemicals could pose a risk to humans at much lower levels.

Moreover, a draft of interim recommendations for PFAS cleanup released in April was panned by EWG and other groups as “woefully inadequate,” in no small part because it relies on the 70 parts per trillion guidance. The recommendations also do not legally require the Pentagon or the chemical industry to clean up contaminated sites. According to the Defense Department, at least 126 military bases have reported possibly harmful PFAS levels, and EWG identifies 117 military sites on its map. Chemical companies like DuPont are meanwhile associated with mass-PFAS contamination in areas like Parkersburg, West Virginia.

EPA testing has also historically set a level for detection that EWG says is too high. According to Walker, “more than 100 million Americans could have PFAS in their water supplies” if the detection level reflected the lower points at which studies have show averse health effects to occur.

It is unclear when or if the EPA will address such discrepancies. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) last week introduced a bill that would require the agency to create a drinking water standard for all PFAS chemicals. But the bill would give the EPA two years to do so — a timeline unlikely to appease communities currently struggling with contamination.

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