Harvard Study Says Toxic Chemicals In Water Affect 6 Million In U.S.

Aug 15, 2016

A new study from Harvard University found that more than six million Americans have industrial chemicals linked to PFOA in their water.

The report was published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Scientists tested water systems across the country for highly-fluorinated chemicals, which have been used for more than six decades in non-stick coating, stain-resistant carpets, food wrappers and fire fighting foam.

Arlene Blum worked on the study and she says 66 public water supplies contained traces above the advisory level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The class of highly-fluorinated chemicals are chemicals that virtually never break down in the environment," Blum says. "These chemicals are toxic so they are one of the most problematic families of chemicals."

Polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, have been linked with cancer, hormone disruption, high cholesterol and obesity.

"The class of highly-fluorinated chemicals are chemicals that virtually never break down in the environment. These chemicals are toxic so they are one of the most problematic families of chemicals." — Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute

PFOA is one of the highly fluorinated chemicals and it's been found in about 250 private wells around Bennington.

The contamination in Vermont has been linked to the former Chemfab plant in North Bennington which used PFOA as part of its process of coating fabric with weatherproof material.

Blum, who is executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, says the study looked at municipal water systems near industrial sites, military fire training areas  and waste water plants.

She says the results show a clear link between the use of PFASs at the sites, and contamination in the nearby water systems.

The Harvard study only looked at larger municipal water supplies and so Blum says the contamination in Vermont suggests that the problem is likely even more widespread around the country.

"The study is based on EPA data," she says. "The EPA did not measure private wells or smaller systems, so, they probably will follow a similar pattern."

Vermont officials have been aggressive in tracking down contaminated wells and trying to get clean water to the people affected by the crisis.

"For many years, chemicals with unknown toxicities, such as PFASs, were allowed to be used and released to the environment, and we now have to face the severe consequences." — Xindi Hu, lead author of the study

Blume says in some states there has been a less-focused response and she says many scientists and doctors are calling for even more widespread testing to understand the scope of the problem.

“For many years, chemicals with unknown toxicities, such as PFASs, were allowed to be used and released to the environment, and we now have to face the severe consequences,” said lead author Xindi Hu, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard. “In addition, the actual number of people exposed may be even higher than our study found, because government data for levels of these compounds in drinking water is lacking for almost a third of the U.S. population — about 100 million people.”

The EPA set an advisory level for PFOA at 70 parts per trillion, and the highest reading in the study showed levels at 349 parts per trillion.

In Vermont the highest levels of PFOA in the water exceeded 2,000 parts per trillion.

A second study that was released suggests that PFAS exposure in children can interfere with immune function, and may be involved in reducing the effectiveness of vaccines.