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Do forever chemicals really last forever?


WORLD Radio - Do forever chemicals really last forever?

A recent U.S. Geological Survey report raises concerns about synthetic chemicals in drinking water

A researcher pours a water sample as part of drinking water and PFAS research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Associated Press/Photo by Joshua A. Bickel, File

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: drinking water. What do non-stick pans, fire fighting foam, and tap water all have in common?

MARY REICHARD, HOST: [Drinking water] Hmm, not sure.

BROWN: Well, that’s ok, this one’s tough…

Those three things contain P-FAS substances. Polyfluoroalkyl substances. P-FAS for short.

These chemicals are used in non-stick and stain-resistant coatings, invented in the 1930s. They are chains of carbon and fluorine. Commonly called “forever chemicals,” they’re highly resistant to breaking down. By the 1960’s, P-FAS chemicals used in fire retardant foams began seeping into groundwater.

REICHARD: Last month, the United States Geological Survey released new research claiming that P-FAS chemicals are flowing out of nearly half 45% of American faucets. But just how big of a threat are these chemicals in our drinking water?

WORLD’s Lillian Hamman has more.

LILLIAN HAMMAN, REPORTER: Between washing laundry and dishes, taking showers and drinking water, the average American uses a little over 31,000 gallons of water every year. But all that water isn’t…just…water.

SUSAN GOLDHABER: They said up to 45% of, of our drinking water could be contaminated. But the press ran with it.

Susan Goldhaber is an environmental toxicologist with over 40 years of working for private, state, and federal agencies, such as the EPA. Goldhaber’s experience writing drinking water regulations caused her to find the latest report on PFAS chemicals somewhat conflated.

SUSAN GOLDHABER: They sampled 716 locations. 716 locations for the entire country is not very much. You need to say, what the whole country you know, how big is this country? But their model came out and said, based on this, there could be up to half the people with the PFAS. The thing that's missing in all these articles is they don't talk about the levels. They're detecting these at such low levels.

By levels, Goldhaber means the concentration of PFAS chemicals in parts per trillion. To put one parts per trillion in perspective, it’s equivalent to one second every 30,000 years. The EPA’s latest standard allows no more than 4 parts per trillion of the chemicals. When the US Geological Survey concluded that 45% of tap water is contaminated by PFAS chemicals, only 0.348 parts per trillion were found.

Goldhaber notes that how we interpret the concentration of PFAS chemicals in the water is critical for understanding the affects of PFAS chemicals on our health.

GOLDHABER: there were some studies saying that the people who were exposed to the highest levels had higher cholesterol, like one or two points. Sometimes we saw an increase in cancer, so they looked at, you look at it, and then you say, okay, that's the level where it occurred, what's the level, the safe level? Well there's a lot of judgment in there, because different people will look at the same studies. But basically EPA looked at all the data. They said that this can cause cancer. Which is not very widely accepted. We don't want any of that in our water. And so we're going to say, you know, to be on the safe side, we're going to say it causes cancer, and then we're going to set this as low as we can. 

Goldhaber believes PFAS chemicals should be regulated, but only according to the undisputable data. Chris Moody of the American Water Works Association explained why water utility companies are struggling to comply with current PFAS regulations.

CHRIS MOODY: regulation has cost. That's just a fact of life, and there definitely becomes a question about whether or not the costs make sense.

There are multiple factors at play when Moody mentions “cost.” First, the actual affordability of meeting and keeping up with the regulations.

MOODY: we kind of have a tug of war happening between having affordable water and having water that sustains the system. We've estimated costs that are about three times higher than the EPA estimate. Because most of the time water systems are run by people that live in the community, they don't have stakeholders that they have to pay out to and all those things. And it means that you start to derive really significant conversations about either increasing rates, which people don't like, or shifting your priorities from other programs to pay for that new regulatory requirement.

Moody says another obstacle when factoring costs of regulating PFAS chemicals, is the toll on the workforce. Many of the current experts, operators, and consultants in the water industry are close to retirement. Adding another regulation with more certification requirements for maintaining drinking water, could make it challenging to quickly hire and train new employees replacing them.

MOODY: they're going to have to actually increase their certification requirements for their operators, because these are very, you know, these tend to be considered very advanced treatment systems compared to what we normally do at water treatment systems. 

Moody also points out that PFAS chemicals are not the only concerns floating through the water supply. Aging infrastructure can lead to broken water mains and contamination by other materials in the water. Flint, Michigan’s corroded water pipes in 2014, and a prolonged water-boil advisory in Jackson, Mississippi last year are two notable examples.

MOODY: what happened, you know, not the entire issue of what happened in Flint, Michigan, but part of the issue there was that they switched water system sources. And they did not fully understand what the implications of that would be on the water and the chemistry. And so it led to this large release of, you know, things in the water.

The EPA hopes to stay on top of water crises by investing in research to further understand the effects of PFAS chemicals, restrict their presence, and eliminate as many as possible. Until then, using a good filter can help keep your water clean.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lillian Hamman.

BROWN: WORLD science correspondent Heather Frank contributed to this report.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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