Forever Chemicals (PFAs) and America’s Polluted Water Sources

Gen X, PFAs (Polyfluoroalkyl Substances), forever chemicals, these pollutants go by many names, but they all describe a chemical group of carcinogens widely abundant in the United States’ surface and now groundwater systems — the sources we rely on for our drinking water. PFAs are found in many consumer products and have been linked to adverse health effects including liver problems, increased risk of asthma, reduced response to vaccines, and kidney and testicular cancers. There is now a substantial body of evidence to show PFAs are endocrine disruptors – chemicals that interfere with hormone function and are linked to obesity, thyroid disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Little did I know, PFAs have been a part of my life since before I heard their name for the first time back in freshman year (2017) at UNCW in my college town of 60,000 in Wilmington, North Carolina. I had just recently moved from Philadelphia to Wilmington to attend university when it splattered all over the news. These forever chemicals had been steadily released into Wilmington’s drinking water by the Dupont Chemical plant for the last 30 years.

graphic showing pfas sources

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I was shocked to learn that a well-known company would send carcinogens into our drinking water with no idea of what harm they might bring to the community. Only now, in my senior year finishing up my studies at UNCW, is it established that PFAs are not just found in Wilmington, but had been running rampant for years in the drinking water of my hometown of Philadelphia and other major cities across the nation. So why aren’t we talking about this? Why isn’t there an uproar? We are not a third-world country, yet each day millions of Americans, without their knowledge or consent, are relying on and consuming polluted drinking water. PFAs are widespread in American life and found in numerous common consumer products.

Water is precious and vital to sustaining all life. This resource is critical to regulating our body temperature, helping our brains function properly, and flushing out waste from our bodies. We tend to take water for granted thinking that it is clean, plentiful, and will never run out. Yet, with an ever-increasing global population of 9 billion people by 2050, and a rise in polluted water systems, clean, potable water is now becoming harder to obtain.

Who Is Affected by PFAs? Every American

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PFAs have been around since the WWII chemical boom and have been creeping into America’s water systems ever since. This long-lasting group of chemicals is contaminating the drinking water of more than 40 U.S. cities from D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, and many more. Since I first heard about it back in freshman year, PFAs have been further studied, as in this report by the Environmental Working Group, and found to be even more prevalent in America’s drinking water systems than previously estimated. The results confirm that most Americans are exposed to PFAs from tap water. Unfortunately, water systems are not yet required to test for PFAs. Since PFAs have now been found even in our rainwater, it would likely be detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., and certainly in all that use surface water. Take for example my college town of Wilmington. It typically uses surface water systems like the Cape Fear River to offset the substantial amount of drawdown in our coastal aquifers through artificial recharge of surface water. Now even our groundwater aquifers are contaminated with GenX from our recharge from our surface water systems. It is no surprise, then, that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PFAs are found in the blood of most Americans.

Tap water samples from 44 test sites in 31 states and the District of Columbia show that only one location had no detectable PFAs and only two others were at levels low enough to be considered a non-threat to human health. Some of the highest PFAs detections were in major metropolitan areas including Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City. Through reservoirs and faucets, they flow and infiltrate into groundwater aquifers and our irrigation systems that support and grow our crops. Everything relies on water including our food, and with chemical carcinogens polluting our water sources, PFAs are now being detected in our food.

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Many of our cattle also drink contaminated water, eat, and feed on grass grown in soil contaminated by PFAs which then get transferred to us through food consumption. “These chemicals are present in their food and water, they will get it into their bodies, just like they do us humans,” states Christopher Higgins, a PFAs researcher and environmental chemist at the Colorado School of Mines. Tests soon found PFAs in milk at many dairy farms tested with tests measuring 1,400 parts per trillion, more than six time’s Colorado’s current action level for milk.

Adverse Health Effects of PFAs

In addition to their adverse health effects for adults, PFAs have been shown to cross from placenta to fetuses in utero and pass to babies through breast milk. According to environmental epidemiologist Phillippe Grandjean of Harvard University, at the end of the breastfeeding period, a child may have a serum concentration of PFAs 10x higher than its mother’s since the mother is eliminating the PFAs from her body. The child cannot excrete them, so they build up in the baby’s body. When I learned of the adverse effects PFAs have on expecting mothers I couldn’t help but think of all the women in my life that recently have had children: my professors that have started families, my boss at the YMCA, old high school friends back in Philadelphia. How many women and their children have been adversely affected by PFAs? In addition to PFAs’ effect on mothers and fetuses, PFAs have also been linked to delayed puberty, adverse fertility in women, and low sperm count in men, preterm birth, immune response suppression, and ADHD. One of the most frightening connections coming to light is the fact that PFAs affect immune response suppression, meaning that the covid 19 vaccinations will be less effective.

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Solutions and Future Issues

The truth is currently there are no simple or inexpensive technologies for removing PFAs effectively from drinking water. Selecting drinking water treatment options to remove PFAs typically requires a case-by-case evaluation to identify best options. Current options for drinking water treatment technologies to remove PFAs include granular activated carbon (GAC), ion exchange, and reverse osmosis. Of these, the most common is GAC, but the design of the filter and how often the carbon is exchanged can affect performance significantly. Reserve osmosis, however, is the most effective technology while also being the most expensive. In case you plan to switch to bottled water after reading this, know that in 2019, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health advised pregnant women, nursing mothers, and infants to avoid drinking certain brands of bottled water due to their high levels of PFAs contamination.

PFAs are a class of thousands of different types of chemicals with over 600 in active use. These include a new generation of short chain PFAs that are supposedly safer than long chain PFAs predecessors. However, the EPA has allowed them on the market without adequate safety testing. Now these new chemicals may pose new issues and an even greater health risk. A new study at Auburn University reported that short chain PFAs are more widely detected, more persistent and mobile in aquatic systems, and, thus, may prove more risky to human and ecosystem health. Existing water treatment methods are also less effective for short chain PFAs.

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Policymaker Action

These complicated solutions call out for policies to protect the public. Federal and state policymakers should set science-based drinking water standards for PFAs in tap water, end non-essential uses of PFAs, expand PFAs water monitoring efforts, halt the use of short chain PFAs until properly tested for detrimental health risks, require reporting of ongoing PFAs discharges into water supplies, and reduce ongoing PFAs discharges into water supplies. We need to also ensure PFAs wastes are being disposed of properly. Lawmakers have so far failed to set drinking water standards for most states, clean up legacy PFAs contamination, or restrict ongoing PFAs releases into drinking water supplies. On the bright side, the U.S. Congress recently enacted legislation that will expand PFAs reporting and monitoring -so at least there is a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, far more work needs to be done to protect the American people from this widespread carcinogen.

Looking Forward and Reflecting Back

I am passionate about ensuring everyone has access to clean, potable drinking water and affordable and nutritious food. For me, the two are inseparable. These resources that should be available to everyone and a basic human right. Since learning about PFAs and other pollutants in America’s drinking and surface water systems has pushed me to pursue a career in hydrology and restoration ecology. I want to spend the rest of my life restoring our surface water systems and drinking water resources. They affect everyone and everything. In summer 2021, I will graduate from UNCW and pursue a master’s in water resource engineering and hydrology at NC State. I want to find creative solutions to these momentous environmental issues. I want to be part of the broad effort that is needed to resolve America’s water pollution crisis.

— Julianna Tresca, Rachel Carson Council Fellow, UNCW. Julianna Tresca is a senior at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington majoring in Geology and Environmental Science with a focus in geospatial technologies. Her RCC Fellowship project is on housing and food insecurity. [email protected]



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