Study shows high amount of ‘forever chemicals’ in tap water; local systems respond

A new report by an environmental watchdog group finds more drinking water systems around the country than previously believed are contaminated by what the group characterizes as high levels of “forever chemicals,” which aren’t broken-down over time.

Water systems in D.C. and Prince George’s County, Maryland, were among those with a high amount of the man-made chemicals, known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group study.

Of tap water samples from 44 places in 31 states and D.C., only one location had no detectable PFAS, according to the EWG study.

In D.C., the group’s testing found 21.7 parts per trillion, while in Prince George’s County, the values were 17.8 parts per trillion.

The advocacy group cites 1 part per trillion of PFAS as a safety threshold.

The Environmental Protection Agency has not set any nationwide limits. However, in a 2016 water health advisory, the EPA recommended a level of no more than 70 parts per trillion, which the agency said “offers a margin of protection for all Americans throughout their life from adverse health effects resulting from exposure.”

In December, the EPA said it would move forward to study two chemicals that fall under the PFAS umbrella — perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFAS) — to determine whether it should set a maximum level for those chemicals. The EPA has known about the existence of PFAS in drinking water for almost two decades.

The chemicals, which are used to make carpets, clothing, paper packaging for food, cookware and firefighting materials, have been in use since the 1940s. Exposure to the chemicals over certain limits has been linked to excessive cholesterol levels, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer, and problems in pregnancies, according to the EPA.

John Lisle, of DC Water, acknowledges the utility and scientists are continuing to learn about PFAS chemicals.

“Testing in 2014 by DC Water and other local utilities did not detect the chemicals, but the detection threshold was higher,” Lisle said. “Newer, more precise methods of testing have since been developed to detect very low levels of PFAS.”

Still, Lisle said risk to humans is low: “The report confirms the PFAS detected in tests conducted in D.C. are at levels well below any established EPA health advisory for these compounds.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on its website, said the safety risk from PFAS is still unclear: “Human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFAS are uncertain. Studies of laboratory animals given large amounts of PFAS have found that some PFAS may affect growth and development, reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system and injure the liver.”

Though the environmental advocacy group would like to reduce the amount of PFAS in the nation’s water, inexpensive home carbon filters, as well as reverse osmosis, and ion exchange water treatment systems appear to be helpful in minimizing risk.

Lyn Riggins, with WSSC Water, which provides tap water in Prince George’s County, said: “For more than 101 years, our water has consistently met all Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. In fact, we have never had a single drinking water quality violation in our history.”

“The [EPA] does not yet regulate PFAS compounds, but maintains a health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for two of the most common compounds, PFOA and PFOS,” said Riggins. “The EWG analysis reported WSSC Water’s total PFAS to be 17.8 ppt, well below the EPA’s health advisory.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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