Laboratory tests carried out by nonprofit activist organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) found evidence of PFAS contaminants in the city of Ann Arbor’s drinking water, according to a new study.
Tap water tests conducted in Ann Arbor between May and December 2019 found the city’s drinking water contained 15.8 parts per trillion (ppt) of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two chemical compounds classified under the PFAS label. It’s important to note that number is below the PFAS safe limit of 70 ppt set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but above EWG’s safe limit of 1 ppt.
PFAS, toxic fluorinated chemicals that don’t break down after entering an ecosystem, can build up in human body tissue, blood and organs. They’re commonly used in making oil or water-resistant products, like nonstick pans, cosmetics and firefighting foam. Exposure to PFAS can increase cancer risks, raise chances of stillbirth, disrupt the immune and reproductive systems and reduce the efficiency of vaccines.
The study also found PFAS present in tap systems of other metropolitan areas, including Washington, D.C., where EWG is based.
In the District of Columbia, PFAS were measured at 21.7 ppt. Test results from Philadelphia measured 46.3 ppt, while Miami tested for 56.7 ppt. Two other metropolitan areas — Quad Cities, Iowa, and Brunswick County, N.C. — tested for 109.8 ppt and 185.9 ppt, respectively, putting them the highest on EWG’s results list.
The results “confirm that the number of Americans exposed to PFAS from contaminated tap water has been dramatically underestimated by previous studies, both from the Environmental Protection Agency and EWG’s own research,” the EWG wrote.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) on Wednesday called on Congress to pass legislation that establishes national regulations on PFAS in drinking water and increases cleanup efforts.
“This report is further evidence that we must take action to prevent the spread of PFAS contamination and protect human health and the environment,” Dingell said in a statement. “These toxic, forever chemicals are everywhere including non-stick cookware, food containers, carpets, cosmetics, firefighting foam, and – most frighteningly – our drinking water.”
Dingell sponsors the PFAS Action Act, a bill that classifies PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances and direct federal resources to limit their spread. The legislation passed in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month, but could face roadblocks in the U.S. Senate and a potential veto by President Trump.
“It’s a beginning, but this won’t help communities or people unless it’s passed by the Senate and signed into law by the President,” Dingell added. “We all must work together to protect human health and our environment.”
In December 2019, provisions to reduce PFAS contamination were stripped out of a defense policy bill that had the support of lawmakers in Michigan – the state with the nation’s highest number of PFAS sites. The bill passed without an amendment that would have required the EPA to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law, as the Advance previously reported.
The growing presence of PFAS is a point of concern for the EWG, EPA and state environmental agencies. Olga Naidenko, EWG’s vice president for science investigations, said “escaping PFAS pollution is nearly impossible.”
“Communities and families all across the nation are bearing the burden of chemical companies’ callous disregard for human health and the government’s inaction,” said Naidenko, who led the study. “This crisis calls for immediate action to ensure that all Americans have safe and clean drinking water.”
PFOA, used to manufacture Teflon, and PFOS, once an ingredient in Scotchgard, were found in 30 and 34 samples out of 44, respectively, according to EWG’s report.
For context, PFOA — perfluorooctanoic acid — is the compound DuPont chemical company used to manufacture Teflon, which lead to contamination of drinking water in West Virginia. An investigation into DuPont is the subject of the film “Dark Waters,” which sheds light on PFAS contamination.
Actor Mark Ruffalo, who stars in the film, did a press conference on Capitol Hill in November with Dingell and other members of Congress to push for more legislation tackling PFAS.