A new study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found at least one perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) in 20 percent of private wells and 60 percent of public wells in 16 states in the Eastern U.S.
“This should set off alarm bells for anyone relying on private well water,” Environmental Working Group (EWG) vice-president of government affairs Scott Faber told The Guardian. “One out of five people getting their water from wells could be drinking PFAS – that’s a big number.”
The research was published in Environmental Science & Technology early this month. In 2019, the USGS collected 254 samples from five aquifer systems used as drinking water. The water was then tested for 24 different PFAS, 14 of which were detected.
Among the most frequently detected were PFOA, PFOS and PFBS, which are some of the most well-studied and well-known PFAS, according to EWG. In general, PFAS are a concern because they have been widely used by industry as stain, heat or water repellants and because they have been linked to various health impacts including cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, hormone interference and immune suppression, according to The Guardian. They also take a long time to break down and therefore remain in the environment, earning them the nickname forever chemicals.
It was already widely known that forever chemicals are present in U.S. public drinking water systems, contaminating water for more than 100 million people. However, there are fewer studies of private wells, which are not subject to a detailed monitoring system.
The occurrence of PFAS in private wells is especially concerning because the new drinking water standard that the Biden administration is working on will not apply to them, EWG pointed out. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has promised to devise a standard for PFOA and PFOS by 2023.)
“A drinking water standard will not address the PFAS in private wells,” Faber told EWG. “It’s very troubling that 20 percent of private wells that were sampled contained PFAS. Millions of people living in rural households could be drinking contaminated tap water.”
In addition to detecting PFAS, the study also considered which wells were most likely to be contaminated with the chemicals.
Wells were more contaminated in areas “affected by modern human activity,” study co-author Peter McMahon told The Guardian.
Wells also had higher concentrations of PFAS if they were near an airport, military base, chemical plant, landfill or other location where PFAS are commonly used. Finally, deeper and older wells were cleaner, while newer and shallower wells that are exposed to more surface and rainwater contained more PFAS.
The study found PFAS in wells in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, according to EWG. One well in West Virginia had a PFOA concentration of 1,500 parts per trillion, the highest detected. None of these states have any PFAS standards in place, The Guardian pointed out.
Environmental and public health advocates have long criticized policy makers for failing to regulate these chemicals.
“No one should have to worry about toxic forever chemicals in their tap water,” Faber told EWG.