Private wells, a little safer than public water supplies in terms of PFAS contamination

Treven Pyles

By Treven Pyles

Posted on July 26th, 2023

Over 43 million people rely on private wells as their source of drinking water nationwide, whereas across the country, there are 148,000 public water systems that serve the rest of the population. Since PFAS water contamination is a hot topic now, people may be wondering which drinking water source is safer.

The quality of drinking water is a rising concern in the United States, as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances have been detected in nearly half of the water sources across the country. However, there is limited information on PFAS in residential tap water, especially from private wells. In a recent study from Environmental International, the researchers conducted a national reconnaissance to compare PFAS exposures in unregulated private wells and regulated public supply tap water. Tap water from 716 locations, 269 private wells and 447 public supplies, across the United States was collected between 2016 and 2021. Seventeen PFAS were observed at least once, with the following chemicals having been found more frequently in 15% of the samples:

  • PFBS - perfluorobutanesulfonic acid
  • PFHxS - perfluorohexanesulphonic acid
  • PFOA - perfluorooctanoic acid

Across the country, PFAS profiles and estimated median cumulative concentrations were similar among private wells and public supply tap water. Still, at least one PFAS was detected in 20% of private wells and in 40% of the public water supply samples collected throughout the country. A similar pattern was reported in groundwater from the eastern United States, in which 60% of the public supply wells and 20% of monitoring wells contained at least one PFAS. It is worth noting that benchmarks and U.S. proposed PFAS regulations exceeded in tap water from private and public supplies. The results indicate that, on average, at least one PFAS is present in 45% of drinking-water samples. Results also indicate that:

  • detection probabilities vary spatially
  • drinking water exposure may be more common in the Great Plains, Eastern Seaboard, Great Lakes, and Central and Southern California
  • temporal variations in concentrations and detections may be limited

According to the American Red Cross, the blood of the average American has 4,300 ppt of PFOS and 1,100 ppt of PFOA, which is extremely alarming since the maximum safe limit for these harmful chemicals is only 70 ppt. Even so, many health organizations consider it too high. Drinking contaminated water is one of the most common exposure routes to PFAS for Americans.

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