Dirty Water: Toxic “Forever” PFAS Chemicals Are Prevalent in the Drinking Water of Environmental Justice Communities
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are toxic chemicals that have been linked to multiple serious health harms, such as cancer and developmental and reproductive harm. Unfortunately, PFAS are widely used in everyday products such as nonstick cookware, water-resistant clothing, and food packaging. Even worse, PFAS are very resistant to break down—and can accumulate to dangerously high levels in the human body. Monitoring shows that virtually all people residing in the United States have some level of PFAS in their bodies.
California has taken the first steps toward addressing this public health and environmental crisis through a series of investigations of potential PFAS contamination sites, including monitoring drinking water sources near landfills and airports. NRDC has analyzed the initial data from this monitoring program, with a particular focus on data related to drinking water in overburdened communities. Our findings are reflected in the report here, accompanied by a set of online interactive tools below. These investigations revealed that PFAS pollution in California is widespread throughout the state, but more intense in communities already overburdened by multiple sources of pollution and by other factors that make them more sensitive to pollution, putting those vulnerable communities at greater risk of harm from PFAS exposure. At least 69 percent of state-identified disadvantaged communities have PFAS contamination in their public water systems. Almost a quarter of these communities face the highest levels of PFAS contamination in the state.
Action is urgently needed to protect Californian communities—especially those already overburdened with cumulative exposure to multiple different types of pollution—from this ubiquitous chemical. The state must take steps to ensure that all Californians have access to clean water by improving monitoring and testing for PFAS, cleaning up contaminated water, providing clean water to disadvantaged communities in the interim, and eliminating nonessential uses of PFAS in products and applications.
The first interactive tool below is a series of interactive maps showing the relationship between PFAS drinking water pollution and indicators of existing pollution burdens. The maps allow users to explore drinking water testing data at the census tract level. To better understand the impacts of PFAS drinking water contamination on communities with existing pollution burdens, we incorporated data from CalEnviroScreen 3.0 (CES) into our analysis. CES scores—developed by the California Environmental Protection Agency and based on geographic, socioeconomic, public health, and environmental hazard criteria—identify communities that are disproportionately burdened by and vulnerable to multiple sources of pollution. The higher the CES score the greater the burden.
The second interactive tool allows users to examine, at the city level, PFAS and other pollution data in greater detail, as well as demographic information about the city.