Is Your Drinking Water Safe? A Closer Look at the Risks of ‘Forever Chemicals

Lifestyle

Have you ever thought about the quality of your drinking water? 

While water is crucial for life, it can also be a means of coming in contact with toxic contaminants. Among the contaminants, a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or “forever chemicals,” has raised substantial fears about their probable impact on human health and the environment.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey research, PFAS infects at least 45% of the country’s tap water. As of February 2024, there are over 1240 sites across the country that are contaminated with PFAS. This translates to over 25 million Americans who might have some PFAS in their drinking water. 

To understand why this is an issue, let’s dive deeper to explore the risks of PFAS and how to ensure the safety of your drinking water.

What are PFAS, and Why Are They a Problem?

PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are a large family of man-made chemicals. They’re prized for their water-, grease-, and stain-resistant properties. 

For several years, they’ve been used in items ranging from nonstick pans and pizza boxes to carpets and firefighting foams. The problem with PFAS is its extreme persistence. They stay put in the environment, thus, earning them the “forever chemicals” label. Worse, they can build up in our bodies over time.

Scientists suspect that nearly every American has trace amounts of PFAS in their body. Even if you avoid consuming PFAS (which is nigh impossible), in about 4 to 10 years of your life, you’ll only get rid of half the chemicals. 

And once you expel them, they can also remain in the atmosphere for years. PFAS remains have been found worldwide, from Antarctica to the Arctic. They are known for traveling thousands of kilometers and can move through solids, liquids, and gas.

How Does PFAS Contaminate Drinking Water?

PFAS can contaminate water in several ways. Industrial sites that manufacture or use PFAS can release them into nearby water sources. 

Landfills where products containing PFAS are dumped can leach the chemicals into groundwater. A major source of concern is the widespread use of AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam), a type of firefighting foam containing high levels of PFAS. The widespread use of AFFF (Aqueous Film-Forming Foams) containing PFAS has led to numerous lawsuits filed by firefighters, military personnel, and residents living near areas contaminated by these foams. 

According to TruLaw, the plaintiffs allege that manufacturers of AFFF failed to warn about the potential health risks associated with PFAS exposure, and they seek compensation for various illnesses and conditions. The outcomes of these lawsuits could have significant implications for the future use of AFFF and the development of safer alternatives.

Health Risks Associated With PFAS Exposure

While research is ongoing, there’s growing evidence that PFAS exposure could harm your health. Studies have associated PFAS with:

  • Multiple types of cancer (kidney, testicular)
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Hormonal disruptions
  • Decreased vaccine response and developmental problems in children

Determining safe exposure levels has been challenging due to the complex nature of these chemicals and their ability to accumulate in the body over time. The EPA has established lifetime health advisory levels at 0.004 part per trillion (ppt) for PFOA, and 0.02 ppt for PFOS. On the other hand, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) sets a threshold for group tolerable weekly intake (TWI) of 4.4 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per week.

Remember that these are general guidelines, and the safe exposure levels can vary depending on various factors, such as the specific PFAS compound, the route of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, dermal contact), and individual health conditions. 

Regulatory Efforts and Drinking Water Standards

Unfortunately, PFAS pollution is prevalent in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently attempting to establish comprehensive regulations for PFAS in drinking water. 

However, this process has been met with challenges and controversies, as stakeholders debate the appropriate levels of protection and the economic implications of such regulations.

Currently, the EPA has issued non-enforceable health advisories for two specific PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS. There are no legally enforceable federal drinking water standards for the broader class of PFAS chemicals. Resources like the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Tap Water Database can help you check if PFAS has been detected in your local water supply. 

However, it’s important to note that current regulations and testing may not catch all forms of PFAS.

Steps You Can Take To Protect Yourself

While the issue of PFAS contamination is complex, you don’t have to feel helpless. Here’s what you can do:

  • Filter your water: Choose a home water filter certified to remove PFAS. Look for filters with reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon technology.

  • Reduce your PFAS exposure: Limit the use of products containing PFAS, like nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and some food packaging.

  • Stay informed: Keep track of PFAS contamination in your area, tune in to the latest AFFF lawsuit update, and support organizations working on the issue.

  • Speak: Contact your elected officials and urge them to act to limit PFAS pollution and protect public health.

In conclusion, ensuring the integrity of our drinking water is paramount to preserving public health. 

The presence of “forever chemicals” like PFAS in our drinking water is a sobering reminder of the need for vigilance and action. While regulatory efforts continue, it’s crucial to stay informed, reduce personal exposure, and advocate for stronger protections. By taking proactive measures, such as installing certified water filters and supporting organizations working on this issue, we can safeguard our families and communities.

Remember, access to clean, safe drinking water is a fundamental human right, and it’s our collective responsibility to ensure its protection for generations to come.

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