Remember those disturbingly ubiquitous chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency can’t bring itself to ban from our drinking water? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl are man-made substances that were once prized for their ability to make surfaces resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Until the US started to phase them out in 2006, PFAS were used in everything from microwave popcorn bags to fast-food wrappers to water-repellent clothing. One of them, PFOA, made famous by its use in Teflon, has been linked to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid conditions, and testicular and kidney cancers.
For a newly released study, the agency’s own scientists, in tandem with US Geological Survey peers, took samples from 25 drinking-water treatment plants (in confidential locations across 24 states) and tested them for PFAS. The result: All of the samples tested positive for the chemicals, though just one exceeded the EPA’s voluntary “health advisory” of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, the most-studied of the chemicals.
The finding comes on the heels of a draft report, released last year by the Department of Health and Human Services, concluding that the safety threshold is actually much lower than the EPA’s current standard: 7 parts per trillion for PFOS and 11 parts per trillion for PFOA. An additional three of the samples exceeded those lower standards.
Meanwhile, the EPA isn’t eager to set a “maximum contaminant level” for these persistent chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which could force utilities to filter out the chemicals. On Jan. 16, acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler refused to commit set a drinking water limit for PFOA and PFOA; and Jan. 28, Politico reported he had definitively decided not to set a limit, a conclusion that the EPA later denied, declaring in a press release that the decision is still undergoing interagency review.