According to a new study from Harvard University, more than six million Americans are at immediate risk of being exposed to water that contains unsafe levels of PFASs, industrial man-made chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health problems.
PFASs (polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances) are one of the most widely used class of chemicals in the world. The highest levels of PFASs in the study were found near industrial sites, military bases and wastewater treatment plants, although the chemical has been largely used in everyday products such as non-stick cookware, food wrappers and “water-proof” items, for the past 60 years. According to a 2015 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found PFASs in 97 percent of human blood samples.
“Virtually all Americans are exposed to these compounds,” said Xindi Hu, the Harvard study’s lead author. “They never break down. Once they are released into the environment, they are there.”
What makes the findings of Hu’s study especially concerning is that PFAS chemicals are so prominent in household water supplies, water that humans come into contact with continuously every single day. Although humans are also often exposed to the chemicals through food, consumer goods, and air, the soluble quality of PFASs makes water an exceptionally high source of exposure.
Hu’s study found at least one water sample that measured at or above what the EPA considers safe for human consumption in 66 water supplies (serving six million people) out of the 4,864 sampled that 75 percent of the PFAS-rich, unsafe water supply came from the drinking water in 13 states: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
Health threats ranging from testicular cancer, to hormone disruptions, to high cholesterol and obesity have been linked to long-term exposure to the PFASs. Another recent Harvard study by Philippe Grandjean also suggests that PFAS exposure could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines in children.
Although they are one of the “unregulated contaminants” monitored for public health by the EPA, PFAS chemicals are currently not regulated at all by the federal government. This is partly due to the “complicated and contentious” rules that must be followed, which have prevented any new contaminants from being regulated over the past two decades.
Richard Clapp, professor emeritus at Boston University’s School of Public Health, argues that too many communities are being directly impacted by the chemicals for immediate action not to be taken.
“We’re definitely overdue,” he said. “It’s not a question of whether, but rather at what level should they be regulated.”