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PFAS Chemicals Fueling a Water Contamination Crisis in Hundreds of Communities Across the Country

By Michael Bartlett

Posted on November 18th, 2019

The drinking water supply of millions of Americans in numerous communities has been found to contain PFAS chemicals at concentrations of concern. Certain of these chemicals are known to be highly persistent and bioaccumulative and associated with harmful effects on health, environment and natural resources.

For decades, people living in municipalities and small communities across the United States of America were unaware that the tap water they were drinking contained perfluoroalkylated substances. The contamination was affecting the groundwater, the surface water and the drinking water. Today, American citizens continue to have lingering questions about the long-term effects of drinking water laced with PFAS and await a planned exposure assessment to measure for the presence of the chemicals in their blood.

Fluoroalkyls are generally water-soluble and hence very mobile in the environment. Carried by rain, they can penetrate the ground and reach water wells beyond the original location where they were lost to ground, termed a source area, affecting immense volumes of groundwater resources. It is estimated that almost half of the American population relies on groundwater as a supply of drinking water. These chemicals have been designated as a possible carcinogen based on epidemiological evidence linking exposure to:

  • Kidney cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Lymphoma
  • Neuroendocrine tumors

Local Communities Need to Clean up Sites and Provide Safe Drinking Water to Their Residents

There are more than 151,000 public water systems in the U.S. serving residential communities, schools, office buildings, hospitals, and other sites. According to a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, over 1,500 water systems across the country may be contaminated with PFAS chemicals, affecting 110 million Americans. Here is a map prepared by EWG that details communities nationwide where PFAS contamination is a problem.

It is particularly difficult for small communities to fund infrastructure upgrades and monitor water quality. Contamination of drinking water by PFAS can pose challenges for states and communities, and some have called for the EPA to establish a health-based standard.

For emerging contaminants not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is authorized to issue health advisories, which provide information on health effects, testing methods, and treatment techniques for contaminants of concern. A few months ago, the EPA has announced approximately $6 million to fund research by eight organizations to improve the understanding of human and ecological exposure to PFAS in waste streams and identify management practices, and technical methods to minimize the risks to both humans and ecosystems. This research is expected to help provide additional information about PFAS to federal, state, and local officials, as they work together to address these chemicals and protect public health, and also to promote a greater awareness of how to restore water quality in PFAS impacted communities.

Concrete Actions to Address PFAS in States, Tribes and Local Communities

Findings of groundwater contamination on or around multiple military bases around the United States have affected drinking water supplies and led some communities to either add expensive drinking water treatment steps or avoid particular groundwater sources altogether.

Experts advise solutions aimed at reducing carcinogenic substances that are present in tap water, but the biggest hurdle to implementing them is that they can be costly, and in many cases, members of the public have been unwilling to see large rate increases in their water bills.

"The public is responsible for helping local water suppliers to set proprieties, make decisions on funding and system improvements, and establish programs to protect drinking water sources. Water systems across the nation rely on citizen advisory committees, rate boards, volunteers, and civic leaders to actively protect this resource in every community in America, the EPA states.

Many low-income communities may be at risk of elevated exposures due to nearby military bases, industrial sites, or other contaminated sites. In cases of contamination in rural areas without municipal water supplies, options for residents may be limited to alternative water supplies such as bottled water and/or in-home treatment until groundwater contamination is addressed.

Combined efforts by the communities, states, and the federal government will be needed to address the PFAS problem, and ensure the health of people and wildlife in the affected areas. With regard to PFAS, states should amend applicable laws and policies that govern drinking water revolving fund allocations and other financing mechanisms to ensure that water systems in vulnerable and economically disadvantaged communities can afford to upgrade treatment technology.

We Guide Clients through the Complex Legal Issues Presented by PFAS

Environmental Litigation Group has the benefit of a wealth of knowledge and experience with all types of environmental toxic tort cases, including water contamination. Our law firm is highly motivated to help individuals and groups dedicated to protecting their families and communities from PFAS contamination, and we work tirelessly on this challenge.