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23 Jan, 2020 19:14

What are toxic ‘forever chemicals’ & should Americans be worried there are more of them in the water supply than we thought?

What are toxic ‘forever chemicals’ & should Americans be worried there are more of them in the water supply than we thought?

American drinking water is far more contaminated than previously estimated — by carcinogenic ‘forever chemicals’ that linger in the blood and cause a range of health problems.

A major report has been published by an environmental watchdog agency about the state of the drinking supply in the US. The findings from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) show that hundreds of millions of Americans are affected by the contamination.

The source of the pollution is perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals. The nickname comes from the fact that they do not break down in the environment (or indeed in the human body). They are used in a variety of consumer products including waterproof clothes, fast food packaging and non-stick pans, and are commonplace in industrial processes.

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These chemicals increase the likelihood of a range of health problems including cancer and liver damage and they also harm foetal development. Worst of all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that forever chemicals pollute the blood of practically every person in the US, including new-born babies. In the words of one of the report’s co-authors, David Andrews, forever chemicals in tap water are a ‘’toxic soup’’ to which ‘’everyone’s really exposed.’’

Mapping the problem

The scientists ran tests for 30 different forever chemicals between May and December of last year, analysing tap water from 44 locations across 31 states. Of those 44 sites, only Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Seattle, Washington showed PFAS rates below the safe limit of one part per trillion (PPT). But some of the highest rates of PFAS were in the big cities like New York, Washington, DC and Miami.

The US government’s environmental agency, the EPA, has known about the contamination for almost 20 years, but there is still no nationwide legal limit for PFAS. The EPA recommends a limit of 70 PPT, but the body behind this report, the EWG, say that it is at least ten times too high. In fact, only the two most polluted locations studied even exceeded 70 PPT: Brunswick County, North Carolina and Quad Cities, Iowa.

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The EPA claim that they have begun the process of regulating the levels of two kinds of forever chemical, but there are thousands of variants, of which over 600 are presently in use by industry. The EWG is damning in their indictment of the government’s lack of response to this mass-poisoning, and is encouraging US citizens to lobby their representatives on this issue. For current generations though, the damage has already been done.

No escape

Since there are so many different kinds, not many studies have been done to test exactly what kind of damage they can do to people.

A 2017 review found that they negatively impact the body’s cardiometabolic, renaland immune systems, and also delay the onset of puberty in boys and girls. One of their main effects seems to be to weaken the body’s response to infection, such as by increasing the chance of asthma and triggering allergic reactions to vaccines.

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Rather than waging an all-out assault against the body, then, forever chemicals subtly subvert it, which is perhaps why they have not incited much uproar. It is difficult to know exactly how harmful forever chemicals are, but it seems likely that they strike a not insignificant blow to the health of those exposed to them.

One thing is certain though: forever chemicals are ubiquitous. According to research from last year, even the rainwater in America contains forever chemicals — a testament to the contamination of the lakes, rivers and groundwater. Bottled water is completely unregulated as regards forever chemicals, and there is no guarantee that the levels would be any lower than tap water.

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