An environmental group has found significantly higher concentrations of “forever chemicals” in tap water in Northern Virginia than in other parts of the D.C. region, according to a report released Wednesday.
Researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested 19 tap water samples and found that levels of PFAS, or forever chemicals, ranged from about 6 parts per trillion (ppt) in a state park in Fairfax County to about 62 ppt in a public park in Prince William County — about three times higher than levels detected in the District and Prince George’s County.
“In light of our findings, EWG calls on all community water systems in Northern Virginia to conduct their own tests and release the results to the public as soon as possible,” the nonprofit said in its report.
Per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAs, are called forever chemicals because they do not break down in the environment and accumulate in blood and organs. They include thousands of chemicals and are used to make water-, grease- and stain-repellent coatings for consumer goods and industrial applications.
Studies have linked PFAS to heightened cancer risk, reduced vaccine effectiveness, unhealthy fetal development, weakened childhood immunity, endocrine disruption, increased cholesterol and weight gain in children and dieting adults.
EWG collected water samples and had them tested for PFAS at an accredited private laboratory. The group said the source of PFAS in the Northern Virginia water samples is unknown.
The Potomac River supplies most of the drinking water in the Washington metropolitan area, but the Occoquan Reservoir in Northern Virginia provides water to about 40% of the nearly 2 million customers served by Fairfax Water Authority, the EWG says.
Independent studies have deemed 1 ppt of PFAS or less as safe. According to the EWG, the Environmental Protection Agency has not set a legal limit for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA has health guidance recommending that PFAS levels don’t exceed 70 ppt.
“There is no current regulation for PFAS chemicals. We do follow the guidance from the EPA and their Health Advisory level for PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid) and PFOS (Perfluorooctane Sulfonate). EWG’s data shows that all of the results they obtained were below the health advisory level,” said Susan Miller, a spokeswoman for Fairfax Water. “We will take necessary actions to meet future state and federal regulations when they are established.”
In its report, the EWG referred to a large spill of PFAS-based firefighting foam in the Occoquan River from a hangar at Manassas Regional Airport last February. The group says it does not know if the spill contaminated water supplies but noted that some military bases in Northern Virginia have used PFAS-based foams for decades.
The EPA phased out two of the most heavily produced PFAS — PFOA, previously used by DuPont to make Teflon, and PFOS, an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard — after evidence of serious health problems emerged.
While the manufacture, use and importation of PFOA and PFOS are banned in the U.S., the EWG warns that next-generation PFAS chemicals could be just as toxic.
More than 600 of such chemicals are in use, including the new PFAS that replaced substances that were phased out due to their health hazards, the environmental group said. The latest tap water tests by EWG are a snapshot of a specific site on a specific day and might not reflect what is coming out of the tap on a daily basis.
“Because the EPA has failed to set enforceable national standards for any PFAS chemical, water utilities are not required to conduct PFAS testing, make test results public or report them to state drinking water agencies or the EPA,” the EWG said in its report.
An EPA spokesperson said in an email that “the agency recently reissued the final regulatory determinations for PFOA and PFOS under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). With the final Regulatory Determinations for PFOA and PFOS, EPA will move forward to implement the national primary drinking water regulation development process for these two PFAS. As part of this process, EPA is evaluating the best available science to use in establishing a protective Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) and enforceable limits.”
Last year, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill to convene a task force to study PFAS concentrations in public drinking water and to set limits for several of these chemicals.
More than 200 million Americans could be exposed to these chemicals in their drinking water at levels of 1 ppt or higher, a separate peer-reviewed study by EWG scientists estimates. Last year, the EWG detected some of the highest PFAS concentrations in drinking water samples in Miami, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Brunswick County, North Carolina.
Technologies to remove PFAS from drinking water are complex and expensive. Available drinking water treatment technologies to remove these chemicals include granular activated carbon, ion exchange and reverse osmosis, according to the EWG. Many water treatment facilities use granular activated carbon to remove contaminants including those serving Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Quad Cities in Iowa.
“Currently, there are no treatment processes available for drinking water utilities that would not significantly increase water rates for customers. Nor would such treatments produce a demonstrated health benefit,” Ms. Miller of Fairfax Water said. “Fairfax Water continues to stress the importance of source water protection and its role in keeping drinking water supplies safe. Protecting drinking water sources and keeping PFAS away from water supplies is a priority.”
Aside from water, these human-made chemicals are also found in commercial household products such as stain- and water-repellent fabrics and nonstick products, workplaces including production facilities or industries, food packaged in PFAS-containing materials and living organisms such as fish.
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