WASHINGTON (CN) — Collaborating with an environmental watchdog group, actor and activist Mark Ruffalo announced Wednesday that private testing has found significant levels of controversial PFAS chemicals in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities.
“As a result of the study, we know that PFAS have contaminated the drinking water of many, many more people than had been previously estimated,” Ruffalo said this afternoon of the research.
Commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, the study found only one location that had no detectable PFAS out of singular tap water samples from 44 places across 31 states and the District of Columbia.
Cities such as Miami, Philadelphia and New Orleans showed some of the highest PFAS levels detected.
Ruffalo became involved in PFAS activism after starring in “Dark Waters,” a 2019 thriller inspired by the true story of one corporate lawyer’s long-running court battle over unexplained deaths in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
It was back in 1999 that Rob Bilott, the lawyer played by Ruffalo, accused the U.S. chemical company DuPont of ignoring to the dangers of Teflon-manufacturing operations in Parkersburg.
Decades later, Ruffalo noted that little has changed when it comes to dangerous chemical practices.
“Despite everything we know, we have not stopped PFAS from being used in food packaging, cookware, and other products,” Ruffalo said. “We have not cleaned up legacy PFAS pollution. More than 100 million Americans are likely drinking water contaminated with PFAS.”
The results of the EWG study indicate that Environmental Protection Agency researchers have dramatically underestimated the amount of Americans exposed to these chemicals via drinking water.
“Who is paying for our failure to act?” Ruffalo asked. “We are — these chemicals don’t respect political boundaries.”
PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — a toxic group of more than 5,000 separate chemicals utilized by manufacturing companies to create products like Teflon pans, firefighting foam, waterproof jackets, water-resistant carpets, waterproof mascara and eyeliner, sunscreen, and shampoo. They have been used to make commercial products since the 1950s, and the EWG says 99% of Americans have PFAS in their blood.
Commonly known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS feature a unique molecular makeup that allows them to persist in both bodies and the environment for decades, resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and water.
“Once we’re discharging these chemicals into the environment, they’re not going to breakdown, they’re going to spread,” said Sydney Evans, a science analyst with EWG.
Studies conducted by the C8 science panel have linked PFAS to kidney and testicular cancers and endocrine disruptors in humans. Clusters of cancers and immune system diseases are also often prevalent in communities near military bases that use PFAS-containing firefighting foam.
The EWG collected its tap water samples meanwhile between May and December 2019, studying them for the presence of 30 different PFAS compounds at an accredited independent laboratory. It found six or seven of these compounds per sample on average.
Evans said the study was limited by the small number of compounds that EWG could test for.
“The more we’re looking for the more we’re going to find,” Evans said, noting that most notorious PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, were found in 68% and 77% of samples, respectively.
Olga Naidenko, a leader of the study and the vice president of Environmental Working Group, said escaping PFAS pollution is nearly impossible.
“Communities and families all across the nation are bearing the burden of chemical companies’ callous disregard for human health and the government’s inaction,” she said. “This crisis calls for immediate action to ensure that all Americans have safe and clean drinking water.”
While there are more than 5,000 chemicals that belong to the PFAS subset, the EPA has only administered health advisories on two: PFOS (Teflon) and PFOA (formerly an ingredient in the 3M product Scotchgard). In 2016, after reviewing several peer-reviewed studies, the agency said that a lifetime of exposure to PFOA and PFOS from drinking water over 70 parts per trillion would be cause for concern. It should be noted that the EPA has established a lifetime health advisory for only two of the thousands of PFAS chemicals.
At a combined exposure levels over 70 ppt, according to the EPA’s report, exposure to PFOA and PFOS “may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).”
EWG said Wednesday on the other hand that it developed its much lower baseline of a lifetime exposure of 1 ppt, after reviewing additional research.
“Every state that has looked at all of the science on immune system and maternal health have set lower numbers,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG, citing New Hampshire’s example of setting PFOA and PFOS limits at 12 and 15 parts per trillion, respectively.
Faber maintained that EWG’s findings lend new urgency to efforts by ongoing state and federal officials.
EWG senior scientist Dave Andrews said that the primary reason for the 1ppt value is based on the studies of impacts on the immune system of PFOS and PFAS.
“There are a number of different studies on different health harms that really point to the need for these incredibly low thresholds,” he said.
According to Andrea Amico, co-founder of Testing for Pease, a community action group based out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, dedicated to advocating for those impacted by PFAS water contamination, PFAS contamination is a much bigger issue than the EPA has reported.
Despite the EPA only having lifetime health advisories of 70 ppt for two PFAS in a large family of chemicals, the reality is that many Americans are exposed to a combination of multiple PFAS in their drinking water, she said in a statement Wednesday.
The EPA did not immediately respond to request for comment Wednesday on its current threshold.
Next month marks a year since the EPA released an action plan” that drew criticism for focusing on PFOS and PFOAs almost exclusively and neglected to lower EPA’s lifetime exposure advisory. What’s more, the EPA didn’t lay out intentions to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act accordingly or to identify and clean up existing groundwater contamination.
“It’s important that we hold ourselves accountable to the truth,” U.S. Representative Antonio Ramon Delgado, a New York Democrat, noted Wednesday, describing a still-growing effort to enact PFAS protections .
Just this month, the House passed a law that would require the EPA to classify PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.
“The Senate needs to pick this bill up and pass it as soon as absolutely possible,” Delgado continued. The bill has 52 bipartisan co-sponsors in the Senate.
The superfund designation would trigger cleanups of contaminated groundwater within one year of the bill’s passage.
Andrews says that possible cleanup methods could include granular activated carbon and reverse osmosis filtration systems and notes that those who made this solution those who created this mess are potentially on the hook for keeping this up.
“What really made all this possible is a legal and policy system that puts in place a policy of secrecy across the board for all of these chemicals,” said Ken Cook, EWG president and cofounder. “Someone needs to pay for this other than the communities who were polluted.”
The EWG says it will be conducting more tests for PFAS in drinking water later in 2020.