Are Fluorinated Chemicals Contaminating Your Local Drinking Water?

May 9, 2018
Sites with toxic fluorinated chemicals in tap water and at industrial and military sites are shown in this screenshot of an interactive map from the non-profit Environmental Working Group. Source: EWG

TipSheet: Are Fluorinated Chemicals Contaminating Your Local Drinking Water?

Recently, Washington state banned the firefighting foam used at some military airstrips for use by local civilian fire departments, saying it may cause cancer when it gets into people’s drinking water wells.

But the underlying problem is far more common than many realize. That’s because the chemical family involved, perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, is actually part of a larger tribe of fluorinated chemicals that are widely used … and often problematic.

Is there a story about PFAS near you? If so, your audience may care a lot if their health is not being protected.

Foams such as those covered by the Washington law, signed in March and taking effect in two years, are an important tool in fighting certain kinds of fires (such as petroleum or burning airplane fuel) because they cover and smother.

And chemicals like PFAS are used in the foams because they are inert and work as surfactants. But their very inertness — reluctance to react with other chemicals — makes them long-lived, which allows them to wash off into surface, and eventually, groundwater. It also means that when they get into the human body they may stay for a long time.

The affected groundwater may be a source for both private and municipal wells used for drinking supply. And while the health effects of PFAS when people drink them are still being investigated, they are suspected of causing cancer, as well as changes in the liver, thyroid, pancreas and hormone levels.

Chemical’s health impacts unclear

There’s more. The broader class of fluorinated chemicals is used for all sorts of things in our modern world — from nonstick pans to french-fry wrappers. And their environmental health consequences are still incompletely understood and somewhat controversial.

You may hear mention of “Teflon” chemicals like PFOA, PFCs and C8, among many other acronyms. It is worth remembering that each has different sources, exposure routes, dose levels and health effects.

PFOAs started making news as early as 2014, when they were discovered in the drinking water of Hoosick Falls, N.Y. In the next few years, they were also found in the wells of Bennington, Vt., and other places in that state.


PFOAs and related chemicals have been

showing up in more and more of the

drinking water that people rely on.


There were investigations, lawsuits and bills in the legislature. Erin Brockovich got involved. These incidents spanned public and private wells. And the sources included factories and landfills.  

In the best outcomes, private well-owners got PFOA-free municipal water piped to them at the expense of companies believed to be the source of the pollution.

These incidents are hard to cover, because when people perceive local cancer clusters, scientific investigation often fails to confirm that they are statistically significant, much less that PFOAs are the cause.

But the problem is hardly solved. PFOAs and related chemicals have been showing up in more and more of the drinking water that people rely on. And that can make it a story for environmental journalists in many places.

You can see the possible extent in this map and report by the Environmental Working Group. One reason for the growing trend is that testing methods have gotten more sensitive and accurate.

Federal regulation uncertain

How does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency help? It’s complicated.

EPA oversees enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act. When EPA regulates a chemical it sets a “maximum contaminant level,” or MCL, by rulemaking, and that MCL is to some extent legally enforceable.

But since the law was passed in 1974, the legal reality has been that authority is shared between states and EPA. This is what EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt calls “federalism,” although it was invented long before his time. It allows states and feds to blame each other when something goes wrong.

EPA responded to the PFOA-PFOS crisis in May 2016 when it announced a tightening of the levels in drinking water that should trigger an “advisory.” That was a fairly typical “federalist” move, one where EPA defines general benchmarks and leaves states and municipalities to enforce them.

But here’s something to know about EPA and the SDWA: Most chemicals in the PFOA-PFAS tribe are — technically — not “regulated” (may require subscription). The exception is PCBs. It’s also worth remembering that SDWA does not apply to private wells. There is, nonetheless, a fairly elaborate SDWA mechanism for dealing with “unregulated” contaminants.

So here are some tips if you want to start looking at PFAS-PFOA contamination of drinking water in your area.

  • Talk to your local or regional drinking water utility. This may be either a municipal entity or a private company. Start by getting their latest “Consumer Confidence Report” (even though this may not mention PFOAs).
  • Find the agency in your state that oversees drinking water regulation and contact them.
  • Look at the “occurrence data” in EPA’s database, collected under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule.
  • Contact the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, which has paid some attention to the PFOA-PFAS issue.
  • Explore the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database, which predigests a lot of the information about drinking water contaminants, so that even non-geeks can use it. They have a page about PFOAs and another about PFOS.

Update: See a roundup of related reporting from EJ Today on May 14 in "White House, EPA Headed Off Chemical Pollution Study." 

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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