In recent months, volunteers in Maryland and 17 other states ran their kitchen taps and sent samples of the water they normally use for drinking and washing to a lab. In most every case, the water contained so-called “forever chemicals.”
“The more tests we do for PFAS, the more we’re finding it,” said Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, which has been taking these snapshots of the chemicals formally called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in tap water for years.
“It’s in line with what we were expecting,” she said. “But at the same time it shows the urgency. People are being exposed right now.”
The move is part of a yearslong effort to draw attention to the presence — and potential dangers — of PFAS used for decades widely in firefighting foam but also in commercial products to make pans stick proof and clothing water and stain resistant.
The group has found the buildup of these long-lasting chemicals linked by federal scientists to immune, reproductive and other issues in 2,858 locations in all 50 states.
The effort by environmental groups, academic researchers and government scientists is finally gaining traction. The Environmental Protection Agency is poised in coming weeks to begin releasing its own data and is working toward tighter regulation that includes limits on about a half dozen common chemicals in drinking water, a big source of exposure.
About 10 states, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have passed a patchwork of their own limits for drinking water. Others, including Maryland, have been testing drinking water and reducing PFAS levels, in some cases by switching water sources in communities.
The state last year banned the sale of products with PFAS, including food packaging, carpets and firefighting foam. Officials are evaluating PFAS levels in wastewater treatment plants, including the biosolids used as fertilizer, and overseeing remediation at military facilities.
For consumers, the state plans to provide consumption advisories for recreationally caught fish based on PFAS levels in the water.
Maryland has joined about half the states in suing manufacturers of PFAS for contaminating water supplies. Baltimore has filed its own suit. The companies, including 3M, have denied wrongdoing.
The Maryland Department of the Environment recognizes the risk from PFAS and “has placed a priority on understanding, reducing and communicating that risk,” said Jay Apperson, an agency spokesman.
He said the state will continue sampling water from 450 community water systems, serving 90% of the state’s population, and views the EPA water standards as “an additional tool” in the efforts.
“Because MDE has tested drinking water from all of the community water systems in the state, Maryland is well positioned for continued progress as the proposed standards are considered,” Apperson said.
He also said, while the state is taking action, consumers can make choices to reduce exposure by avoiding products with PFAS and filtering drinking water.
The attention at the local and federal levels and around the globe is “remarkable after several decades of nobody noticing,” even if the efforts are chaotic and piecemeal, said Graham Peaslee, a PFAS researcher and professor of physics, chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
He said there have been more than 1,600 publications in the last year linking PFAS to health issues. Peaslee called the chemicals toxic and said ridding them from tap water, rainwater and every living human’s blood will not be simple. PFAS can be destroyed only through incineration, a costly and potentially hazardous method.
Peaslee said consumers can sequester some PFAS through faucet and pitcher filters, so long as there are regular filter replacements. (The Environmental Working Group has recommendations.)
However, that doesn’t work well on large municipal water systems, he said. Reverse osmosis systems are better but even more costly. Efforts are underway, including at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, to develop cheaper, more effective filters for home and municipal use, as well as irrigation system for food crops.
The proposed federal drinking water limits will force some of this change, as will the patchwork of state actions, Peaslee said. He estimated that when the EPA releases data it will show 25% to 35% of U.S. drinking water, serving about 100 million people, exceeds proposed limits. It could be worse in Maryland, with available testing preliminarily showing the East and West coasts with higher levels.
“Best thing we can do? Educate people about what this threat is and what they can do about it,” he said. Read: Don’t use coated pans, stain-resistant clothes or microwave popcorn, and filter water.
“As consumers we can move away from [PFAS-containing] products and use our considerable market pressure to phase out nonessential uses of these chemicals,” he said. “It is going to take a lot of people making the right decisions going forward to change the historical trajectory, but given the explosion of news reports on PFAS I would say it is starting to happen.”
The testing by the Environmental Working Group aims to educate consumers about their own water. In the most recent round of testing, it reported two Baltimore sites had PFAS in tap water at 10 to 12 parts per trillion. Results for three dozen sites in 17 states ranged from no PFAS in some California cities to 82 parts per trillion in Monroe, New Jersey.
The EPA says the standard should be 4 parts per trillion for the PFAS it’s proposing to regulate, down from the current advisory level for all PFAS at 70 parts per trillion.
The federal agency released a “road map” in 2021 for addressing PFAS. It included a timeline to set drinking water standards and wastewater treatment guidelines and issue health assessments and hazardous substance designations. Last month, the EPA said how it would limit some of the chemicals in water and reveal results of its own tests.
“For decades, PFAS have been released into the environment without the necessary measures in place to protect people’s health,” said Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, in a statement related to the road map.
“EPA’s new framework will ensure that before any new PFAS enters the market, these chemicals are extensively evaluated and pose no risk to people’s health or the environment.”