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Exclusive lab tests show toxic 'forever' chemicals in America's tap water

We collected samples from suburban homes, city businesses and even the halls of government (Photo: Alex Brauer)
We collected samples from suburban homes, city businesses and even the halls of government (Photo: Alex Brauer)
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Toxic “forever” chemicals are seeping into the water Americans drink every day. The more we learn about the potential health impacts of these chemicals, the more serious the problem becomes. As the EPA takes bold steps to try to limit PFAS contamination, Spotlight on America conducted a series of exclusive lab tests and discovered just how widespread the contamination of America’s water system is.

The PFAS Problem

You can’t see or taste them, but there are more than 12,000 chemicals that could be lurking in your drinking water, causing everything from birth defects to cancer. Broadly known as PFAS, short for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, these are dangerous man-made toxins that never break down, build up in our blood and organs, and could damage the health of millions.

PFAS originated in the 1940s, when the DuPont company introduced nonstick cookware coated with Teflon using the chemicals. 3M would later become a lead manufacturer of products containing PFAS, touted for being non-stick, stain repellent and waterproof. They would also contribute to a public health crisis we are still seeing develop today. Because PFAS chemicals are so durable, they don’t break down. They’re often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they’re nearly impossible to eliminate from the environment. They also accumulate in our body from a variety of sources.

PFAS chemicals are ubiquitous in our lives. They’ve been found recently in baby clothes and dog food packaging, and are known to exist in makeup, non-stick cookware and dental floss.

People can be exposed to PFAS in a number of ways, from eating contaminated food, breathing air containing PFAS, and drinking water polluted with the toxins.

Currently, much attention is focused on drinking water, as communities across the country are learning these hazardous chemicals can seep into their water supplies from a number of sources, including industry discharge, landfills, and airports and military bases, due to the long-term use of a firefighting foam that contains PFAS and has leeched into the groundwater.

There’s emerging science when it comes to the health risks associated with PFAS exposure. According to the EPA, peer-reviewed studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to:

  • Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women.
  • Developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes.
  • Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.
  • Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response.
  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones.
  • Increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.

Children are believed to be more sensitive to the harmful effects of PFAS, because they are continuing to develop. According to the EPA, some people may have higher exposures to PFAS, including people who live near PFAS-producing facilities. Pregnant and lactating women tend to drink more water than the average person, and as a result, they may have higher PFAS exposure if PFAS is present in their water.

Federal health officials are currently focused on just a small handful of the 12,000 PFAS chemicals out there. They’ve zoomed in on a pair of harmful chemicals, and just this summer, proposed dramatically reducing the level that would be considered safe. The level of PFOA, one PFAS chemical, once considered safe, was 70 parts per trillion. Now, the EPA is proposing slashing that to .004 parts per trillion, a reduction of more than 99.99%.

With that reduction in mind, we set out to obtain a new set of data when it comes to drinking water.

Exclusive Tap Water Tests

As the EPA continues to review PFAS chemicals and draft more stringent restrictions on their levels in water, there is increasing interest in the scientific community over just how contaminated US drinking water sources may be.

So we decided to test what’s coming out of taps, from suburban homes and city businesses, to the halls of government.

We collected samples at 11 locations in Maryland, Virginia, and in Washington, DC, including at the US Capitol and inside the lobby of the EPA.

We sent the tests to Suburban Labs, one of a handful of specialized labs across the country that is certified to test for 18 PFAS chemicals.

More than a third of our samples contained PFOA, (Perfluorooctanoic Acid) generally viewed by experts as one of the most serious PFAS chemicals. In two of our tests in suburban Virginia homes, the levels of PFOA were more than 12-hundred times higher than the EPA’s proposed advisory level of .004 parts per trillion.

These advisory levels, measured in parts per trillion concentrations, are values at which the EPA believes adverse health effects are not anticipated to occur over a specific period of time. The EPA says its health advisory levels are designed to “protect people from adverse health effects resulting from exposure throughout their lives to contaminants in drinking water.”

The current level – which is based on what scientists tell us are outdated models when lower detection was not possible and less was known about PFOA and PFOS (Perfluorooctane Sulfonate) – is 70 parts per trillion. New, dramatically lower levels, based on the EPA’s suggestion of .004 parts per trillion, are expected to be settled upon in the coming months.

To get a better understanding of our findings, we brought our results to Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a leading toxicologist and expert on PFAS. She is the former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and spent 19 years at the EPA, where she directed the largest division focusing on environmental health research.

While there are more than 12,000 PFAS chemicals, labs are only capable of testing for a tiny fraction of them. And there’s constantly new data emerging about the dangers of PFAS. After reviewing our test results, we asked Birnbaum what she found most troubling.

“That they’re everywhere,” she said. “That you’re seeing these chemicals, essentially, everywhere. “And I think it’s not just one chemical, it’s several chemicals that are pretty much in almost every sample that you took. The levels are low, which is the good news, but they’re still there.”

One of the chemicals we detected that she was perhaps most concerned about is called PFHxS. We found it in the tap water of two Maryland homes. “That one really concerns me because there are growing amounts of animal and human data showing that PFHxS may be every bit as bad as, say, PFOS and PFOA and it lasts in our bodies for a longer period of time,” said Birnbaum.

Another PFAS chemical that we found in nearly every sample, including at the Capitol and EPA, is called PFHxA. It’s a large sub-set of PFAS - and while there are no bans on it in the United States, it is on the cusp of having restrictions on all of its uses in the European Union. The European Chemicals Agency’s Committee on Risk Assessment recently endorsed such restrictions because of PFHxA’s persistence in the environment and harmful effects on the human reproductive system. A recent study found PFHxA and other PFAS, in breast milk.

According to a 2020 study by the Environmental Working Group, PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S. In a sampling of water from 44 places in 31 states, EWG found the toxic chemicals in tap water in every state it tested and the District of Columbia. Consistent with what we found in our tests, each EWG sample with detectable levels contained six or seven PFAS compounds.

A Local Tragedy

Beth Markesino ran at least three miles every day as she trained for marathons. That meant drinking copious amounts of tap water from her home in Wilmington, North Carolina.

She never imagined that the water she was guzzling could have been contaminated with PFAS.

Then, tragedy struck her family. Six years ago, Beth’s son Samuel died shortly after birth. He had failed to develop a kidney or bladder, problems that some studies have linked to PFAS exposure. Beth believes the chemicals in drinking water are linked to Samuel’s death.

She says doctors did genetic testing on Samuel and found no medical reason for his fatal birth defects.

Meanwhile, scientists and journalists uncovered that massive quantities of PFAS chemicals had been dumped into the Cape Fear River, which supplies drinking water to more than 300,000 people in the Wilmington, North Carolina area.

“I’m not a scientist. I’m a stay at home mom,” said Markesino. “But I was a pissed off stay at home mom to find out that the water I was drinking, that I thought was clean, was toxic and full of these chemicals.”

Beth credits scientists for work that would raise public awareness and trigger action - like community intervention, improved water treatment facilities and lawsuits to hold polluters responsible.

“PFAS passes from the placenta to the fetus, that’s what happened to my son,” she said. “And I’ve always had that question in the back of my mind, but it’s because of these scientists that we have this research that we can give to our community members to let them know the health effects of these chemicals.”

According to a class action lawsuit,The Chemours company, a spin-off of DuPont, the original maker of PFAS chemicals, “willfully, wantonly, recklessly and negligently” discharged toxic chemicals, including PFAS compounds GenX, PFOS and PFOA into the river for decades.

The lawsuit alleges:

  • Data shows that the four counties impacted by the dumping have among the highest concentration of liver disease in the US
  • The rates of liver and testicular cancers in New Hanover County is significantly higher than the state average

The lawsuit, which includes Beth Markesino, is still pending.

In the meantime, she’s taking action, working on legislation called Samuel’s Law, that would allow for medical monitoring for PFAS. She told us she plans to propose the law on a state level, but she’s hopeful it will be enacted on a federal level as well.

Beth founded a non-profit called North Carolina Stop GenX in Our Water, which now has 7,000 members on Facebook, and focuses on raising awareness, and pushing to hold polluters who dumped GenX PFAS chemicals accountable.

“We should not be having to pay for the harmful effects that they have caused us,” she told Spotlight on America. “They’ve been profiting off putting poison in our water.”

But for now, taxpayers are footing the bill for their pollution, recently investing in a $43 million filter at their water treatment plant to ensure clean water. Beth says her trust in government agencies is shattered, so she installed a water filter under her sink as well.

She knows that low income communities may not be able to afford filters, and fears that other places may not even know about PFAS contamination, or have the means to take action.

“There's this big gap within communities that are being neglected and ignored and those people need to be listened to and helped,” Beth told us.

We discovered there are contaminated communities all over the country.

A Nationwide Problem

By some estimates, 200 million Americans nationwide are likely drinking water polluted with these chemicals, and PFAS has been detected in the blood of 98% of our population.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum was part of a groundbreaking study to pinpoint what could be the areas of concern.

Her research mapped probable communities with high concentrations of PFAS chemicals.

The total number of presumptive contamination sites was 57,412, broken down into:

  • 49,145 industrial facilities
  • 4,255 wastewater treatment plants
  • 3.493 current or former military sites
  • 519 major airports.

Every state had multiple sites, with areas of the Northeast almost completely blanketed.

Dr. Birnbaum’s work is pioneering on this subject. Right now, there are no federal limits on PFAS in drinking water, and no federal requirement for universal testing.

As of mid-November, fewer than half of states have enacted guidance or regulatory limits on PFAS in drinking water, so whether it’s in your tap water most likely depends on where you live.

The EPA told Spotlight on America that it’s working on a national regulation with enforceable PFAS limits in place by the end of next year.

What You Can Do

The EPA’s action on PFAS in drinking water won’t be done overnight, and in the meantime, there are real concerns for families who may be drinking polluted water.

In additional rounds of testing performed for Spotlight on America, we looked at nearly two dozen top brands of bottled water purchased from all over the country. Because bottled water in the US can be sourced a number of different ways, including from natural springs, or from tap water, we wanted to find out if PFAS was removed during the filtration process.

We tested multiple samples from the following brands:

  • Aquafina
  • Dasani
  • Poland Spring
  • Life Wtr
  • Acadia Spring Water
  • Harris Teeter
  • Arrowhead
  • Earth H20
  • Kirkland

Every sample had no detectable levels of PFAS, suggesting that bottled water may be a safer alternative to tap water.

The EPA’s website says it does not recommend bottled water for communities “based solely on concentrations of these chemicals in drinking water that exceed the health advisory levels." Instead, the agency recommends contacting your local water utility for recommendations, and is asking communities and water systems with PFAS chemicals to consider taking action by installing treatment technologies or finding a new source for drinking water.

If you have a filtration system in your home, you may be wondering whether it works to eliminate PFAS.

Historically, PUR and Brita filters have focused on the removal of lead, chlorine, and mercury. Neither of the company’s web sites claim to filter out PFAS, but we tested them to see if they made any difference in our samples.

Every sample of tap water we collected was also put through a Brita and PUR pitcher filtration system and tested. We used Brita water filtration pitcher model OB03 and PUR water filtration pitcher and dispenser chemical and mechanical reduction unit model CR-1100C. The results were inconsistent when comparing Brita and PUR to each other. But in every case, both brands reduced the level of PFAS contamination. In some cases, it lowered the chemicals to below a detectable level, but not every time. Generally, we found that the higher the level of PFAS in the tap water, the less likely it was that the filter was able to reduce the chemicals below a detectable level.

In general, Dr. Birnbaum says that filtration is a good step, but that consumers need to be vigilant when it comes to changing the filter.

“Consumers need to change their filters according to the manufacturer’s instructions,” said Birnbaum. “[If] they don’t change their filters over time, all that PFAS that has built up on the filter will start leaching off and getting into your drinking water.”

Want to find out if your water contains PFAS? The National Institutes of Health funds a company called Cyclopure which offers a water testing system that claims to measure 55 PFAS chemicals. The NIH has called it an “affordable method to provide water quality information to households across the U.S.” Cyclopure says it’s tested more than 1,000 water samples across 41 states, and that users can get accurate results within 10 days.

Consumers should note that Cyclopure’s lab is not certified; results are for information only and will not be accepted by government agencies.

Cyclopure announced this spring that it developed a filter for Brita pitchers to remove PFAS from water, including removing PFOA, PFOS and GenX chemicals among others, and it’s working on a faucet mount and refrigerator filter to be released next year.

Other companies, like Hydroviv, which was born out of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, claim to remove PFAS and dangerous heavy metals by optimizing their filters based on the latest available water quality data in the purchaser’s city.

Reducing PFAS in your water is just one way to try to protect yourself, bearing in mind that PFAS has many sources and accumulates in the body.

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Dr. Linda Birnbaum told us it comes down to being informed and having priorities when choosing consumer goods that contain PFAS. “I think we need to begin to ask questions,” she said. “What do we really need? Do I need my hiking boots to be totally stain resistant and repellent? Do I need to have PFAS in my dental floss for example, or in toilet paper or in my makeup? Those are the kinds of things we can begin to make choices about.”