The Burden of PFAS-Contaminated Drinking Water

Community response to NRDC study identifying PFAS present in drinking water that are missed by EPA


Jacob Pritchard for NRDC

Exposure to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) is associated with a wide range of health effects including cancer of the kidneys and testicles, thyroid disease, pregnancy-related hypertension, damage to the liver and immune system and developmental harm. EPA recently estimated that the drinking water of 70-94 million Americans is contaminated with harmful levels of these toxic “forever chemicals.” But EPA’s calculations are based on the proposal to regulate just six PFAS out of a class of thousands of chemicals. How high would this estimate be if the entire class of PFAS were considered? 

It is difficult to answer this question right now due to limitations in testing methods. The EPA has developed methods to measure the levels in drinking water of only 29 individual PFAS. EPA will be using these methods in the national monitoring program known as the fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR5) which will be conducted from now until 2025. 

But considering the number of chemicals in the PFAS class, our community partners want to know if they are being exposed to unmonitored PFAS. In partnership with the National PFAS Contamination CoalitionCommunity Water Center, and others we worked with Eurofins Environment Testing to use their new method to test for 70 PFAS to begin to address this question. Our findings were published in Science of the Total Environment and are summarized in our NRDC Fact Sheet. Overall, we found 12 PFAS in the drinking water samples that are not included in EPA methods and our results predict that both the national monitoring program and the proposed PFAS drinking water regulations will leave some communities unprotected. Little is known about the health effects associated with exposure to many of these newer, unmonitored PFAS because of limited studies. However, health experts are concerned that these chemicals could also be harmful because they are chemically similar to their toxic cousins.

When talking about thousands of PFAS and millions of people impacted, the magnitude of the PFAS drinking water contamination crisis can quickly become impersonal and seem abstract. But the reality is that the results from our study impacted our community partners on a personal level. Here we share some of the stories behind these findings.

EPA’s newly proposed standards only focus on 6 PFAS chemicals, which means many communities in our study, such as here in Fairbanks, AK, would not qualify for drinking water protections despite expanded testing showing substantial levels of contamination. How is the government going to ensure our health and safety when their testing methods are so inadequate?"

Pam Miller, Alaska Community Action on Toxics

“The proposed regulation is a giant step in the right direction but it leaves our communities vulnerable with a false sense of security. Houston communities are overburdened from a myriad of chemical exposures, now we have to add PFAS to that list.”

Jackie Medcalf, Texas Health and Environment Alliance, Inc

“PFAS is a serious threat to rural communities and this report identifies the need to regulate PFAS as a class. While the EPA’s proposed regulations are a huge step forward, we need a holistic approach to regulate PFAS chemicals entirely and provide financial support to impacted communities. While the Biden Administration has provided funding to support communities to address PFAS, households reliant on domestic wells are still unsure of who to turn to. We need additional financing support to come from the corporations who caused this environmental disaster.”

Erick Orellana, Community Water Center

“We’ve seen a lot of studies and social movements that have highlighted the devastating  impact of toxic chemicals on the health of people in New Orleans. These water tests are frightening because they reveal the new threat of high levels of PFAS in our drinking water, which are chemicals that stay in the environment for hundreds to thousands of years. Our local communities already face so many environmental injustices, and we continue to advocate for major changes in social policy to keep our communities safe. Everyone in New Orleans deserves access to clean drinking water, and much more needs to be done in order to address water contamination and to ensure that our communities and our children have safe water in their homes and in their schools.”

Dr. Amina Massey, Community Engagement Consultant, New Orleans

“I have been advocating for the needs of residents in a vast area of PFAS contamination in Merrimack NH and surrounding communities for 7 years. Due to extensive water sampling over the course of the investigation, I believed I knew the sum total of PFAS in our drinking water supplies and was stunned when I learned our exposure was significantly higher than believed. A community fighting a known yet powerful PFAS polluter not only deserves the full story, we need the full extent of both PFAS exposure and ongoing environmental contamination to end."

 Laurene Allen, Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water

“Testing in North Carolina found the highest levels of PFAS that are unmonitored by the EPA and whose health effects are largely unknown. While the PFAS regulations proposed by EPA last month are a good start, we demand a whole-of-government approach to stop all PFAS exposures. Our basic human rights are under attack. Communities like mine will no longer sit by as our children’s lives and our hopes for a healthy future are stolen by the greedy and irresponsible chemical industry.”

Emily Donovon, Clean Cape Fear

"The EPA’s proposal to set MCLs for 6 PFAS substances, and continued testing of only 29 substances under UCMR 5, is not a responsive enough measure to ensure clean drinking water for communities. With over 9,000 substances identified, this calculates to .06 percent of what is necessary to begin finding solutions. The White House’s response to testing and development of vaccines for Covid-19 should be employed for this public health crisis. Expanded testing for 70 PFAS substances is crucial and will only help to provide a clearer understanding of the problem." 

Cheryl Cail, SC Idle No More, SCIAC

"Our water is thoroughly poisoned with these toxic chemicals and we are expected to put our health at risk everyday while our government safeguards the companies responsible for this mess. What about the people that have to drink, bath, and clean with this water? We’re protected from 6 PFAS chemicals, but what about the 6 other PFAS found in our water? How much longer must we wait until EPA catches up with the science? How many more of us are going to suffer? I have had to personally finance $11k in medical bills from two medical emergencies. Debt I should not have to pay and $100k my health insurance company has to pay. I should not bear this burden!" 

Liz Rosenbaum

“The Minnesota Department of Health is in the process of testing all community water systems in the state for PFAS by the end of 2023. They have made good progress, but they should expand the number of individual PFAS included in their tests. Otherwise, they could be underestimating PFAS contamination in our drinking water.”

Lori Olinger, Sierra Club North Star Chapter

“We have lived in our home in Fairfield, ME for the past 30 years. We always had our drinking water tested every few years to ensure we were keeping our kids and grandchildren safe. However, three years ago, the DEP tested our drinking water for PFAS, and we discovered we likely had been drinking it the whole time. We felt like our hearts were blown out of our chests. Our well water and many others in Fairfield are contaminated with PFAS higher than any other place in the country. There isn’t a day that we wonder which organ is going to stop working in our bodies. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA are only scratching the surface in trying to solve this disaster.”

Lawrence and Penny Higgins, Fairfield Water Concerned Citizens

"As we begin to monitor a select few PFAS chemicals, the current trend of industry moving towards unmeasured variations of PFAS compounds that are not yet being measured by EPA is alarming. This underlines the urgent need for a comprehensive definition of PFAS and a class-based approach that limits their use to essential purposes and transitions to safer alternatives. We now have firefighting foam without any PFAS to ensure the safety of firefighters and the environment, yet why are we not demanding that same level of safety when it comes to our drinking water?"

Ayesha Khan, Nantucket PFAS Action Group

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