Why Dangerous 'Forever Chemicals' Are Still Allowed in America's Drinking Water
The federal government still hasn't set limits for PFAS compounds. Here's how to protect yourself.
In 2014, residents of Horsham Township, Pa., near Philadelphia, learned that their water had been contaminated with potentially toxic chemicals linked to an array of health problems, including learning delays in children and cancer. Those residents include Frank and Lisa Penna, who allege in a lawsuit that their water was among the contaminated supplies.
Known as PFAS, for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the chemicals in this class of approximately 5,000 substances have become notorious as much for their potential danger as for their perseverance: Because the chemical bonds that hold the compounds together don’t break down easily, they last a very long time—a reality that has led to a commonly used name for the group: “forever chemicals.”
PFAS compounds are also ubiquitous, used in a range of products, from food-delivery boxes to nonstick cookware to stain-resistant clothing. But one of the most troubling routes to PFAS exposure is drinking water that has been contaminated by discharges from factories and other facilities.
A Regulatory Vacuum
Consumer watchdogs and researchers have long called for action on PFAS. “I first asked the EPA more than 19 years ago . . . and we are still waiting for a comprehensive, national response,” says Robert Bilott, an attorney who led a class action lawsuit in the 2000s that accused the chemical company DuPont of contaminating drinking water in the Ohio River Valley with PFAS.
That battle, which led to a court-ordered study of 69,000 residents that found significant health risks, was depicted in the 2019 movie “Dark Waters.” DuPont, while denying any wrongdoing, agreed in 2017 to pay $335 million to settle the dispute.
Frank and Lisa Penna, the Horsham Township couple, allege one possible explanation for the EPA’s delay: The government itself is a major PFAS polluter and is avoiding substantial cleanup costs. In a 2016 lawsuit, the Pennas allege that PFAS migrated from the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove, near their home, into groundwater. Thousands of gallons of firefighting foam, which contains PFAS, had been dumped at the base during exercises over many years, they allege. The Pennas also claim that tests of their private well found PFOA and PFOS levels of 298 ppt and 701 ppt, respectively—up to 10 times the EPA’s voluntary limit.
The Pennas’ case went to trial in August. Part of the government’s defense? It can’t be held liable because PFAS remain “unregulated.”
Navy spokesperson Lt. Gabrielle Dimaapi declined to comment on the Penna case, citing ongoing litigation. But she says the Navy has spent $200 million investigating and responding to potential PFAS concerns and is “working collaboratively with our regulatory partners and concerned communities.”
40 Years of Clues
In their lawsuit, the Pennas presented documents that they say show the government knew of the possible risks of PFAS for decades before the EPA moved to curtail their use—a claim the government denies. That includes a 1974 report commissioned by the Air Force that examined how to dispose of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), the technical name of firefighting foam, because Air Force environmental personnel had “expressed concern for disposing of AFFFs after use.”
Air Force Lt. Ronald Kroop, who led the study, elaborated on those concerns in an August 2019 deposition: “It’s going in the ground,” he said. “That was acknowledged, accepted.” What wasn’t known—and needed to be—was the impact that might have, he attested.
At his deposition, when asked whether the study was conducted to examine the potential impacts on drinking water, Kroop said: “Directly, I cannot say yes. Indirectly, most definitely.”
The EPA was aware of Kroop’s work. In a 1980 EPA-funded study, the agency cited the Air Force’s earlier report, characterizing it as examining the “environmental problems posed by fluorochemicals,” another name for PFAS.
The following year, DuPont drew headlines when it reassigned about 50 female staffers at a West Virginia plant after learning that a PFAS compound used at the site had been linked to possible birth defects in rats.
Years later, in 1999, a former staff scientist at 3M, the company that supplied DuPont with the compound, blew the whistle on his employer for having allegedly withheld crucial information about PFAS. In a resignation letter (PDF) he shared with the EPA, the employee said PFOS is “the most insidious pollutant since PCB,” referring to polychlorinated biphenyls, chemicals now banned for manufacturing purposes.
A 3M spokesperson directed CR to its website, which says the company phased out the use of PFOA and PFOS in the early 2000s but still uses replacement compounds today. The company has spent $200 million on cleanup efforts from PFAS contamination, the website says. More information about the risks of PFAS continued to emerge. In 1999, researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis found PFAS compounds in groundwater below two military bases years after the military stopped using firefighting foam there.
The Burdensome Law
Part of the problem, researchers say, is that Congress has also made it hard for the EPA to act.
It wasn’t always so. When Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, it granted the EPA authority to regulate drinking water. Soon after, the agency adopted standards for about two dozen contaminants, according to research by James Salzman, an environmental law professor at UCLA.
But over the next two decades, water utilities began to push back, citing the high cost of removing contaminants, and in 1996, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act. The amendments “basically gutted the law,” making future regulation unlikely, says Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental organization.
The EPA says it has issued several drinking water regulations to “strengthen public health protection” since 1996, including revisions for arsenic, bacteria, and water served on airplanes.
But since then the EPA hasn’t implemented a new standard for a previously unregulated contaminant. “The agency has not been able to muster the energy or the political will to jump through all those hoops and regulate a single new chemical through that process in 24 years,” Olson says.
Regulate As a Family
Regulating PFAS presents special challenges for at least two reasons: Thousands of the compounds are already in use, and manufacturers keep introducing new ones, though it’s unclear whether they are any safer.
As a possible solution to those problems, researchers argued in a June letter to the journal Environmental Science & Technology that the government should manage PFAS as a “chemical class”—in other words, one standard for all related compounds.
“It takes 20 years to even consider regulating one, and we’ve got thousands,” says Olson at the NRDC. “It will be literally geologic time before we see regulation of most of them.” Worsening the problem is that while some companies have stopped using PFOA and PFOS, many are replacing them with less-studied PFAS compounds.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, says that these newer chemicals are safer and that regulating them as a class isn’t reasonable, because “many PFAS chemistries have very different profiles from PFOS and PFOA.”
But the letter in Environmental Science & Technology said that replacement PFAS can be “equally environmentally persistent.” Other research suggests that those replacements are linked to similar adverse human health effects.
The limits of the one-at-a-time approach were underscored by a June study in Science magazine that looked at how PFAS spread underground. EPA researchers found New Jersey soil samples contaminated by new PFAS compounds—ones that have their own mouthful of a name: ClPFPECA, or chloroperfluoropolyether carboxylate. The researchers pointed to the chemical company Solvay, which has a facility near where samples were taken, as the likely source. In an accompanying piece, other researchers trying to find out more about ClPFPECAs from state regulators said their efforts uncovered almost no useful information, which “raises more questions than answers.”
Solvay told CR that it provided toxicology reports on the compounds to New Jersey and the EPA. The company said those reports—which are not public because they contain proprietary information—show that Solvay is compliant with “applicable” regulations.
But David Andrews at the EWG compared the scenario to the dearth of information on PFAS compounds when they were first discovered. “The agency has no public health information on [ClPFPECAs] and we just seem to be in the same spot three or four more decades down the line,” he says.
‘I keep asking, why the heck are we making chemicals that are never going to go away?’
The Case for a Lower Level
Advocates and researchers who support the 1 ppt limit for PFAS in drinking water point to growing research linking even very small amounts to potential harm, as well as the compounds’ persistence in the environment.
One key piece of evidence is a 2013 study partly funded by the EPA and led by Harvard environmental health professor Philippe Grandjean that showed a decreased vaccine response in children exposed to PFAS. Grandjean’s paper recommended a drinking water limit for PFAS of 1 ppt.
Last year, the EWG recommended 1 ppt for all PFAS, citing Grandjean’s work along with other research associating the compounds with delayed mammary gland development in rodents.
The American Chemistry council disagrees. “The science does not support a 1 ppt level,” the group says.
But some experts say even 1 ppt is too high. The NRDC, in a 2019 report (PDF), acknowledged that toxicity data is limited but said that a zero tolerance is needed “to provide an adequate margin of safety to protect public health from a class of chemicals that is characterized by extreme persistence, high mobility, and is associated with a multitude of different types of toxicity at very low levels of exposure.”
Jamie DeWitt, a PFAS researcher in the department of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine in Greenville, N.C., agrees. “We shouldn’t have these compounds in the environment,” he says. “We shouldn’t have these compounds in our body.”
How to Address PFAS
Consumers can take some steps to limit their exposure to PFAS, including testing their home water, filtering their water, choosing bottled waters carefully, and avoiding products that contain the compounds. (See “4 Ways to Avoid PFAS in Your Water.”)
But consumers can’t solve the PFAS problem alone, says Alissa Cordner, co-director of the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University. Though industry bears some responsibility, it’s unlikely to act without government action, she says.
Ideally, the EPA should set limits on PFAS in drinking water, says CR’s Brian Ronholm. But because that could take years, Congress should mandate more immediate action, he says.
Arlene Blum, executive director of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute, suggests that states can act more quickly to tackle the problem. “The amount of hoops that the federal government has to go through makes it really difficult,” she says.
A few states have set PFAS limits below the EPA’s 70 ppt advisory, according to American Water Works, an industry group. In 2019, Vermont set a 20 ppt limit for five PFAS compounds combined, while New Hampshire passed limits on PFOA (12 ppt) and PFOS (15 ppt). At least nine others have proposed PFAS standards.
But Linda Birnbaum, the recently retired director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science and now a scholar-in-residence in the department of environmental sciences and policy at Duke University, says there is an even simpler solution.
“I keep asking,” she says, “Why the heck are we making chemicals that are never going to go away?”
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
Clarification: Comments from the American Chemistry Council were originally attributed to the FluoroCouncil, a part of the group that was split into two separate organizations in April.
Consumer Reports has a long history of investigating America’s water. In 1974, we published a landmark three-part series (PDF) revealing that water purification systems in many communities had not kept pace with increasing levels of pollution and that many community water supplies might be contaminated. Our work helped lead to Congress enacting the Safe Drinking Water Act in December 1974.
More than 45 years later, America is still struggling with a dangerous divide between those who have access to safe and affordable drinking water and those who don’t. Communities of color often are affected disproportionately by this inequity. Consumer Reports remains committed to exposing the weaknesses in our country’s water system, including raising questions about Americans’ reliance on bottled water as an alternative—and the safety and sustainability implications of this dependence.
In addition to our ongoing investigations into bottled water, we are proud to be partnering with our readers and those of the Guardian US, another institution dedicated to journalism in the public interest, to test for dangerous contaminants in tap water samples from more than 100 communities around the country. The Guardian and CR will also be publishing related content from Ensia, a nonprofit newsroom focused on environmental issues and solutions.
America’s Water Crisis is the name we are jointly giving to this project and the series of articles we co-publish on the major challenges many in the U.S. face getting access to safe, clean, and affordable water. We will share the results of our upcoming test findings with you. In the meantime, you can join our social media conversation around water under the hashtag #waterincrisis.
Chief Content Officer, Consumer Reports