Dangerous ‘forever chemicals’ contaminate US tap water: Report

Water consumed by millions contains chemicals linked to cancer, brain damage and more, according to new report.

A sign is seen next to a water dispenser at Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, a city which has struggled with the effects of poisonous drinking water. Toxic chemical contamination is a serious problem for US water systems, according to a new analysis of data from nearly 50,000 water utilities [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]

Decaying infrastructure and pollution from toxic “forever chemicals” are causing tens of millions of United States residents to drink contaminated water, increasing the risk of cancer and other ailments, according to a new report.

Fifty-six new contaminants, including pesticides and radioactive materials, have been discovered in US tap water over the past two years, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported on Wednesday.

Researchers from the Washington, DC-based non-profit analysed data from nearly 50,000 water systems from across the US to draw their conclusions.

“It’s striking and frustrating how little is being done to improve water quality across the country,” David Andrews, a senior scientist with the EWG told Al Jazeera. “Our scientific understanding of health has progressed, but our drinking water standards are not being updated with the most modern science.”

National US regulations for water, for example, do not include standards for a newer class of chemicals known as PFAS, which are used in the manufacturing of non-stick coatings, Teflon, firefighting film and other products, Andrews said.

Dubbed “forever chemicals” because they build up in human bodies and don’t break down in the environment, small doses of PFAS have been linked to kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer, weaker immune system responses and other serious health problems, the EWG reported.

“There is no federal drinking water standard to test for these PFAS chemicals,” Andrews said.

The administration of US President Joe Biden announced a strategy to regulate PFAS chemicals earlier this month, but it has yet to be implemented.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US government body responsible for creating and enforcing standards for chemical exposure, did not immediately respond to phone calls or emails from Al Jazeera requesting comment.

Contaminated water in the US made headlines in recent years following revelations that more than 25,000 people in Flint, Michigan were harmed through exposure to lead and other toxins in their drinking water. Last year, the state agreed to pay about $600m in compensation to residents, including more than 5,000 children, who were harmed by the polluted water in the working-class city just north of Detroit.

The problems outlined in the latest EWG report are slightly different to what happened in Flint, Andrews said, as contamination in that city was linked to lead pipes through which water travelled after it passed through a treatment plant.

The EWG, in contrast, analysed data from water treatment plants to search for traces of different chemicals.

Their report includes a search function where US residents can enter their postal code to see the raw data on chemical exposure from their local water treatment plant.

Andrews believes official regulators like the EPA should be collecting, tracking and publishing that data, rather than his group and individual water utilities.

Across the US, there is significant variation in water quality levels by municipality, Andrews said. Unsurprisingly, municipalities with the highest contamination levels are often located near chemical manufacturing facilities or farms where pesticide use is high, he added.

Despite better scientific data linking chemicals like PFAS to cancer and immune system problems, regulations have not kept pace, the EWG said.

The Water Quality Association (WQA), a US-based association representing the water treatment industry, did not immediately respond to phone calls or emails requesting comment.

Source: Al Jazeera