Study: ‘Forever Chemicals’ show up in nearly half the nation’s drinking water

Scientists say water containing cancer-linked chemicals has been flowing through taps for decades
Those living in areas with PFAS contamination want more testing done to study the effects on human health. Reporter: Andy Pierrotti, Videographer: Luke Carter
Published: Aug. 14, 2023 at 4:05 PM CDT
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(InvestigateTV/Atlanta News First) — A federal agency has released the results of a new study that found nearly half the nation’s tap water has detectable levels of chemicals that are believed to cause cancer and other health problems.

The study tested drinking water around the country for 32 different chemicals in a group known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short, which are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally in the environment.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey team of scientists, the “research marks the first time anyone has tested for and compared PFAS in tap water from both private and government-regulated public water supplies on a broad scale throughout the country.”

PFAS-related chemicals are used in the manufacturing of products commonly found in many homes, including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpet and fast-food packaging. The contaminant has been linked to numerous health issues, including increased risk for high blood pressure, cancers, low birth weight and decreased vaccine response in children.

The U.S.G.S. study estimates at least 42% of the nation’s tap water contains at least one or more PFAS.

The regulation process for the chemicals is ongoing, but experts say there are no “safe” levels of PFAS, and the effect of the substances depends on the length and levels of exposure — something this new study did not address.

It is estimated that at least 16 million people in the U.S. have been exposed to PFAS through their drinking water, and some impacted communities have taken action, including Rome, Georgia.

In 2016, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division uncovered high levels of PFAS in a river the city used for its drinking water.

To respond to contamination, Rome shut down its primary water intake facility and now uses another river for its water. It’s also building a new multi-million-dollar water plant that will eventually remove the chemicals.

The new water plant will be funded through a settlement the city reached earlier this year with carpet manufacturers it accused of depositing PFAS in the river.

But that’s only one community. While the city of Atlanta says it started testing for PFAS this year, its current water treatment plants cannot remove PFAS.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill set aside billions of tax dollars to help water utilities upgrade their systems to remove PFAS, but some believe it’s not enough and it will take many years to do it.

Water and blood

Twice a month in her 20-year-old minivan, Callie Swafford hits the road for an essential resource: clean drinking water.

She’s on her way to fill up five-gallon water jugs at a natural spring at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It takes her about 25 minutes to drive from her home outside of Rome.

It’s a routine Swafford feels is necessary to ensure her family’s drinking water is safe after the state discovered high levels of forever chemicals in a river Rome used for its drinking water for decades.

“It feels very third world, especially when my daughter was a baby and I’d have her strapped to my back,” Swafford said.

The chemical of concern: PFAS.

“We don’t know the complete scope of how it will affect our bodies, how it will affect our babies,” Swafford said. “I just want to know, is there as much cause for concern as is what is being presented?”

To find out, InvestigateTV traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina, where the public learned of a similar problem in that city’s water in 2017.

How it took action could serve as a road map to how Georgia and other affected states might respond.

The Cape Fear River flows through the city, providing drinking water to Wilmington and other communities. Just like Rome, its source of contamination is upstream, linked to a company that dumped PFAS into its water for decades.

“Over 500,000 people were all impacted,” said Kemp Burdette, the head of the Cape Fear River Watch, an environmental watchdog group. “They all found out on the same day that their drinking water supply was contaminated.”

To measure the impact, he and more than 300 Wilmington-area residents took part in a study conducted by North Carolina State University to test their blood for the chemicals. According to the study, it “detected PFAS in almost everyone who participated no matter where they lived,” at levels higher than the natural average.

The results broke down into three different tiers based on the total concentrations of seven specific PFAS compounds in blood. If a participant’s sum total PFAS was two or less, the recommendation was simple: maintain usual medical care. If it was higher than 20, the health recommendations were more extensive, including increased screenings for multiple types of cancers, hypertension, cholesterol and thyroid issues.

Burdette’s blood results were among the most contaminated in the entire study.

“I expected it to be high, but it is certainly shocking and certainly kind of terrifying,” Burdette said.

Burdette’s doctor, Sanjay Batish, said the results mean his patient is at a much higher risk of certain medical conditions.

“We worry about hypertension, we worry about kidney cancer, renal cancer, testicular cancer,” Batish said.

Batish’s blood results also revealed high levels of PFAS. While concerned, he said the results arm him and his patients with important information on how to respond, including increased medical screenings to catch potential illnesses early.

“Without that information, without the blood testing and urine testing to see what individual levels are, you’re just sort of driving blind,” Batish said.

Burdette’s results hit close to home. His father died from kidney cancer last year, a disease multiple studies link to PFAS exposure. Both men drank Wilmington’s water containing PFAS for years.

Burdette said he feels like the PFAS in his blood is a ticking time bomb that he doesn’t know will ever explode.

“Every time I get a weird kind of sensation, every time I don’t feel great, always in the back of my mind, I’m going, well, maybe that’s getting cancer or maybe that’s testicular cancer,” he said.

Kemp Burdette with his late father
Kemp Burdette with his late father(WANF-TV, Gray TV)

Lack of testing frustrates residents, experts

After learning about the blood results from the Wilmington study, Swafford wants similar testing conducted in Rome. She believes she and her neighbors’ blood are already contaminated.

“That’s concern for a health emergency,” she said.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said it has no immediate plans to conduct any blood testing in the Rome area.

“According to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], most people in the United States have measurable amounts of PFAS in their blood, but there is no established PFAS blood level at which a health risk is expected or that predicts health problems,” department spokesperson Nancy Nydam said.

However, the agency’s take on the risk and need for testing may be splitting hairs. While the CDC doesn’t have an established policy on PFAS testing in blood, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released its recommendations on PFAS last year, which provides guidance on blood testing for patients who are likely to have a history of elevated exposure.

Some of the people who solicited the National Academy for its recommendations came from the CDC.

Environmental epidemiologists at the University of Georgia believe the health agency should be doing more.

“As a health department, they need to do this assessment,” said Dr. Jia-Shen Wang, head of UGA’s environmental health science department. “That’s part of their job. That can clearly tell if there is the linkage between exposure and health outcomes.”

In the study by the U.S. Geological Survey, the agency would not disclose specific testing locations in Georgia but said it collected samples from six homes that use public water utilities and one from a private well.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) is now considering new PFAS limits in drinking water that could be released by the end of the year. According to the division, about two dozen water utilities tested positive for PFAS at levels above the recommended EPA limits within the past two years.

Georgia’s EPD said it notified the impacted utilities about the EPA’s expected changes to offer potential help to bring them up to compliance, but it’s still up to each utility to upgrade its filtration systems or find a new source of water.

Without a large-scale study similar to what North Carolina conducted, residents concerned with PFAS exposure can opt to test themselves, but it’s not cheap or typically covered by insurance.

Earlier this year, Eurofins launched the first direct-to-consumer, at-home test kit, which can measure 47 different PFAS compounds. It’s self-administered and uses a finger prick for the blood draw. Consumers then mail it to a testing site for analysis. According to its website, Eurofins kits run about $399 per test.

The Georgia Department of Public Health did not have any recommendations for helping residents measure the impact. Instead, its guidance focuses on reducing PFAS exposure, include installing a home water filtration system, using an alternative water source for drinking, food preparation, cooking, brushing teeth, or any other activity that might result in ingestion of water is another option.

On July 26, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Michigan), introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure Medicare beneficiaries can get their blood tested at no cost for toxic PFAS chemicals.

Kildee, co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, said The Expanding Seniors’ Access to PFAS Testing Act would require Medicare to cover PFAS blood testing at no cost to seniors.

The legislation is endorsed by the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the American Association for Justice, the Environmental Working Group, On Your Side Action, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Quest Diagnostics.

Gone fishing

Researchers are trying to find out just how much waterways have been contaminated by forever chemicals. Reporter: Andy Pierrotti, Videographer: Luke Carter

This summer, Damon Mullis plans to cruise up and down the Ogeechee River on his 10-foot aluminum Jon boat in search of fish deep below.

The plan isn’t to eat the fish — but to test them for PFAS.

The bigger the fish, the better for testing.

“The longer an animal has lived, and the higher up in the food chain, generally the more contaminated they are going to be with PFAS,” said Mullis, executive director of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group.

In 2022, a study by the Waterkeeper Alliance discovered elevated levels of the chemical in the Ogeechee River, which flows 245 miles from the Piedmont region of the state, through Savannah and to the coast. The river has been plagued with contamination for years. In 2011, more than 30,000 fish died from contamination linked to a now-closed textile plant accused of discharging contaminated water upstream, one of the largest fish kills in the state’s history.

When the Ogeechee Riverkeeper discovered the plant discharging PFAS chemicals into the river more than three years ago, its renewal permit requested lower standards for the substances. The Ogeechee Riverkeeper fought against it, seeking PFAS limits and more monitoring. A few months later, the company announced it was removing PFAS from all of its products.

But Mullis said the damage was done, and even people who don’t eat freshwater fish should be concerned.

“We put these chemicals out in the environment, not really understanding their impacts on the ecology of our systems, but also their impact on human health,” Mullis said. “And then once they’re out there, they make their ways in our body, whether we eat fish or not.”

The Waterkeeper Alliance’s survey discovered PFAS chemicals in 10 other Georgia waterways.

“When we began testing waterways for PFAS earlier this year, we knew that our country had a significant PFAS problem, but these findings confirm that was an understatement,” said Marc Yaggi, the organization’s CEO in a statement posted on its website. “This is a widespread public health and environmental crisis that must be addressed immediately by Congress and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

To measure the impact on the Ogeechee River, Mullis partnered with Georgia Southern University this year to test fish for PFAS. The university purchased its testing equipment, called a mass spectrometer, thanks to a federal grant it obtained from the National Science Foundation.

In May, Mullis took InvestigateTV on the water to catch Redbreast sunfish, one of the most abundant and eaten fish on the river. Each one caught is measured, its GPS location recorded, put on ice, and eventually sent to GSU’s lab.

The likelihood the river’s fish will test positive for some PFAS chemicals is high: A study released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) earlier this year discovered elevated levels of the chemical in freshwater fish from coast to coast. The samples, collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), discovered PFAS in freshwater fish 280 times higher than commercially raised fish.

EWG’s study estimates eating just one freshwater fish a year could be equal to drinking a month’s worth of water laced with the forever chemical.

“This is a significant problem, and this is one that we think should be addressed at both the local and federal level in terms of holding polluters accountable and potentially providing guidance to anglers or communities who are relying on these fish,” said David Andrews, the EWG researcher who led the study.

Damon agrees more testing and regulation needs to be done, but right now the EPA and the Georgia are largely focused on only testing and removing PFAS in drinking water, not lakes and streams.

Some states have set PFAS limits related to fish consumption, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Massachusetts. Some have posted warning signs to notify anglers that fish have previously tested positive for high concentrations of PFAS.

Georgia is not one of them. EPD says the states that took action had much higher levels of PFAS than Georgia. The agency also says it has decided to wait until the EPA releases its PFAS limits and testing guidelines. While that could be by the end of this year, there is no set deadline. The EPA has a long history of delaying action related to PFAS regulation.

Damon Mullis, Ogeechee Riverkeeper
Damon Mullis, Ogeechee Riverkeeper(WANF-TV, Gray TV)

“I would love to see a little more urgency from the federal government and the state government. And that’s one reason we’re doing this project,” Mullis. “What’s happening here is happening all throughout the country. Not doing anything, ignoring it, is not going to help.”