Study Reveals Global Burden of PFAS Concentrations in Water Has Been Underestimated

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Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a type of chemical found in many everyday products. They’re known for their ability to repel water and oil, making them useful in things like non-stick cookware and firefighting foam. Unfortunately, these chemicals have a dark side—they stick around in the environment for a long time and can cause harm to both people and nature.

In a recent study published last week in Nature Geoscience, scientists looked at data from over 45,000 samples of surface water and groundwater from all over the world to see just how widespread PFAS contamination really is. What they found was concerning: many of the water samples contained levels of PFAS that exceeded safety guidelines for drinking water.

What’s even more worrying is that our current methods for testing PFAS in water might not be catching all the distinct types of PFAS that are out there. This means that the problem could be even bigger than we realize.

The above figure, which was taken from the Nature Geoscience article, shows the sum of concentration of 20 PFAS subject to EU guidance in surface water, groundwater, and drinking water samples. In areas where the PFAS concentration exceeded the EU drinking water limit, the article’s author differentiated instances where the contamination source was known, for example, aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, (outlined in red) from areas where the source had not been identified (outlined in black). 

Where Do PFAS Come From?

PFAS are used in a wide range of products, from cosmetics to firefighting foam. And while some regulations exist to limit their use, they’re not always enough to protect us from the harm these chemicals can cause.

The Nature Geoscience study also highlights the importance of understanding the full extent of PFAS contamination in our environment. By knowing where these chemicals come from and how they spread, we can work towards better ways to clean up our water and protect ourselves and the planet.

However, it’s not just about finding better ways to clean up PFAS—it’s also about finding safer alternatives to these chemicals in the products we use every day. By reducing our reliance on PFAS, we can help prevent further contamination of our water and keep ourselves and our environment safe.

Health Risks of PFAS

PFAS chemicals can harm our health, especially when we’re exposed to high levels of them. Scientists have found that these chemicals can affect our immune system, making it harder for our bodies to fight off sickness. Studies in animals and people have shown that PFAS can lower the body’s ability to make antibodies, which are important for staying healthy.

Research has also linked PFAS exposure to several serious health problems, including:

  • Kidney, testicular, liver, and prostate cancers
  • Ulcerative colitis, which is a type of bowel disease
  • Higher levels of cholesterol in the blood
  • Babies being born with lower weights than usual
  • Changes in the liver that can affect how it works
  • Pregnant women having a greater chance of high blood pressure or a condition called pre-eclampsia

These findings show that PFAS chemicals can pose significant risks to our health, and it’s important to limit our exposure to them as much as possible.

Lawsuits for PFAS Exposure

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12 PFAS have been detected in blood serum since 1999. CDC reported data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealing these toxic chemicals exist in the blood of 97% of Americans.

People who develop cancers and other illnesses from PFAS exposure face tremendous medical costs, on top of other losses. Some are taking their cases to court to recover damages. To date, thousands of PFAS personal injury lawsuits have been filed. 

PFAS contamination in our water is a grave issue that needs to be addressed. By understanding the scope of the problem and working towards solutions, we can ensure a safer and healthier future for everyone. Toward this end, water providers across the country have also filed PFAS remediation lawsuits against companies like Dupont, Chemours, Corteva, and 3M. This litigation has resulted in over $13 billion in settlements that will help public and private water suppliers bear the costs of removing PFAS from water supply systems.