- A major government report showing widespread contamination of U.S. water supplies with toxic chemicals was kept from the public for months in order to prevent a “potential public relations nightmare”
- The report, prepared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), focused on perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs), widely used in nonstick cookware, carpet, fabrics, coatings for paper and cardboard packaging and firefighting foams
- Widespread water contamination with PFASs was noted near military bases, chemical plants and elsewhere in the U.S.; PFASs have been linked to negative liver, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, reproductive and developmental effects
- The report warned that the chemicals could harm human health at levels significantly lower than those deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
3 July, 2018 by Dr. Mercola
A major government report showing widespread contamination of U.S. water supplies with toxic chemicals was kept from the public for months in order to prevent a “potential public relations nightmare.”
The report, prepared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), not only showed widespread water contamination near military bases, chemical plants and elsewhere, but warned that the chemicals could harm human health at levels significantly lower than those deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).1
According to Politico, which obtained internal EPA emails released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act, a White House aide sent the following in an attempt to block the release of the study: “The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge …
… The impact to EPA and [the Department of Defense (DoD)] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”2
Millions of Americans at Risk From Teflon Chemicals in Drinking Water
The ATSDR report,3 finally released in June 2018 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), focuses on polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs), which include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the highly toxic chemicals used in the production of the Teflon-coated fabrics, and a similar chemical, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
In addition to nonstick cookware, PFASs have been used in everything from carpet and fabrics to coatings for paper and cardboard packaging to firefighting foams. Although most companies have stopped making PFOA and PFOS as their serious environmental and health risks have been uncovered, the chemicals are extremely persistent in the environment; they do not break down in water or soil and can be carried over great distances by wind or rain, according to ATSDR.
PFASs have been found in air, surface water, groundwater, drinking water, soil and food, and humans can be exposed via all of these sources. Aside from detailing widespread contamination with the chemicals, the report suggests the chemicals are dangerous at levels at least seven to 10 times lower than the EPA’s current ‘safety’ threshold. The EPA’s health advisory level for PFOA PFOS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion ppt), but some environmental groups have long said that is still far too high.
The ATSDR report suggests that in order to protect public health, the levels should be 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA. According to a 2016 Harvard study, 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of PFAS in their drinking water, and about 6 million Americans are drinking water that contains PFAS at or above the EPA safety level.4 If the EPA safety level were lowered according to ATSDR’s recommendation, it means far more Americans are actually at risk.
Serious Health Risks From PFAS-Contaminated Water
The highest concentration levels of PFAS were found in watersheds near industrial sites, military fire training areas and wastewater treatment plants, but private wells were also found to be contaminated. As for health risks, those related to PFASs continue to grow. In May 2015, more than 200 scientists from 40 countries signed the Madrid Statement, which warns about the harms of PFAS chemicals and documents the following potential health effects of exposure:5
|Liver toxicity||Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune and endocrine systems|
|Adverse neurobehavioral effects||Neonatal toxicity and death|
|Tumors in multiple organ systems||Testicular and kidney cancers|
|High cholesterol||Ulcerative colitis|
|Reduced birth weight and size||Obesity|
|Decreased immune response to vaccines||Reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty|
The ATSDR report further noted evidence of negative liver, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, reproductive and developmental effects, while other studies have revealed subtle effects such as an increased risk of obesity in children when exposed in utero and lowered immune response.6 Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who had pressed the government to release ATSDR’s report “immediately,” noted that keeping the contamination information from affected families put their health at serious risk.
“Families who have been exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water have a right to know about any health impacts, and keeping such information from the public threatens the safety, health and vitality of communities across our country,” she said. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, also of New Hampshire, added that the study’s withholding was “an egregious example of politics interfering with the public’s right to know. … [I]t’s unconscionable that even the existence of this study has been withheld until now.”7
110 Million Americans Could Be Drinking PFAS-Contaminated Water
The EPA required testing for PFASs in public water supplies from 2013 to 2015, but only those with the highest concentrations were identified. Those with contamination of 10 to 90 ppt or less were not released, even though now it appears such levels could pose a serious health risk and the safe threshold for PFASs should actually be about 1 ppt.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) set out to determine how widespread the contamination really is — and found up to 110 million Americans drinking water from more than 1,500 U.S. drinking water systems could be at risk. According to EWG:8
“Eurofins Eaton Analytical, which analyzed a third of the nationwide water samples, found that 28 percent of the water utilities it tested contained PFAS chemicals at concentrations at or above 5 ppt. The percentage of samples with PFAS detections nearly doubled when the laboratory analyzed down to 2.5 ppt. Based on this data, EWG’s analysis suggests that up to 110 million Americans could have PFAS in their water.”
People living near former PFAS manufacturing plants and military bases have been particularly affected by the contamination, although it’s widespread across the U.S. For instance, on average, Vermont residents have PFOA blood levels of 10 micrograms per liter. Among residents of Bennington, former home to a Chemical Fabrics Corporation (ChemFab) plant, which manufactured Teflon-coated fiberglass fabrics, however, blood levels of 1,125 micrograms per liter have been detected.
Hundreds of wells in the area have also been contaminated, some found with more than 2,000 ppt of PFOA in the water. Residents worry not only for their long-term health but also for their financial futures. Aside from possibly being saddled with PFOA-related health care costs, their property values have taken a hit and the groundwater and soil contamination may prevent them from being able to sell their homes.
PFOA is already the subject of at least 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont, which used PFOA to make Teflon for decades. One woman who developed kidney cancer after drinking PFOA-contaminated water was awarded $1.6 million in damages.9 Meanwhile, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which purchased ChemFab, is in negotiations with the state of Vermont to provide alternative sources of drinking water for affected residents.
Residents of Belmont, Michigan, the site of an old dumping ground for Wolverine World Wide, a shoe company (maker of the well-known Hush Puppies brand, among others) that used 3M’s PFOS-containing fabric protector Scotchgard for waterproofing leather shoes, are in a similar situation. As in Vermont, area wells are testing positive for shocking levels of the toxic chemicals — 4,600 ppt for PFOA and 23,000 ppt for PFOS.
US Military Continues to Use PFAS-Containing Firefighting Foam
DoD has reported that at least 126 drinking water systems near military bases are contaminated with PFASs, due to their use in firefighting foam.10 However, although other countries are now using firefighting foam that does not contain these toxic chemicals, the U.S. military is not. As reported by Sharon Lerner, a reporting fellow at The Investigative Fund and an investigative journalist for The Intercept and other major media outlets:11
“[E]ven as the Army, Navy and Air Force have begun the slow process of addressing the contamination, which is expected to cost upwards of $2 billion, the Department of Defense isn’t abandoning this line of chemicals. While some of the precise formulations that caused the contamination are off the table, the U.S. military is in the midst of an expensive effort to replace older foam with a newer formulation that contains only slightly tweaked versions of the same problematic compounds …
Some of the studies showing the dangers of these persistent chemicals came from the manufacturers themselves … The new foam contains no PFOS and ‘little or no PFOA,’ according to an Air Force press release.12 Instead, it uses the closely related molecules that pose many of the same dangers …”
It’s important to understand that it’s not only PFOAs and PFOSs that are the problem. Hundreds of different PFAS compounds have been found in regions where firefighting foam is used, including shorter-chained replacement PFAS chemicals such as PFHxS, which the ATSDR report reveals has very similar concerns as other PFASs.
Unfortunately, the military is only attempting to clean up PFOA and PFOS contamination from drinking water and is not providing clean drinking water to residents in affected areas unless their water contains more than the EPA’s threshold of 70 ppt of PFOA and/or PFOS specifically. Further, there are more than 4,000 different PFASs, and scientists are only beginning to unravel their disturbing effects.13
How to Get PFASs Out of Your Drinking Water
Right now the full extent of PFAS contamination is unknown, but there’s a good chance your drinking water could be contaminated to some extent. The existence of chemicals like PFASs, which have no taste or smell, in drinking water is the reason I recommend virtually everyone should filter their water. However, be aware that most common water filters available in supermarkets will not remove PFASs.
You really need a high-quality carbon filtration system to do that. To be certain you’re getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house and then filtering again at the kitchen sink and shower. The New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute recommends using granulated activated carbon “or an equally efficient technology” to remove chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS from your drinking water.14
Activated carbon has been shown to remove up to 90 percent of these chemicals. If you know or suspect you have been regularly exposed to PFASs via your drinking water, it would be wise to not only implement the above filtering recommendations to limit future toxic exposures but also consider a detox program.
In addition, everyone would be well served by following the Madrid Statement’s recommendation to avoid products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs, which includes most that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick.
It’s especially disconcerting that the U.S. agencies tasked with protecting the public’s health were the ones trying to keep this information private. It’s essential that Americans stay informed so they can take steps to get the chemicals out of their water or seek alternative drinking water sources if necessary.
As Olga Naidenko, senior science adviser for EWG, said in a news release, “This study confirms that the EPA’s guidelines for PFAS levels in drinking water woefully underestimate risks to human health … [and the EPA should publish results showing PFAS contamination at any level] so Americans across the country can take immediate steps to protect themselves and their families.”15