14th April 2021
Consumer Reports - USA, investigated the nation’s tap water. Here’s what the results mean for you.
In Connecticut, a condo had lead in its drinking water at levels more than double what the federal government deems acceptable. At a church in North Carolina, the water was contaminated with extremely high levels of potentially toxic PFAS chemicals. The water flowing into a Texas home had both—and concerning amounts of arsenic, too.
All three were among locations that had water tested as part of a nine-month investigation by Consumer Reports and the Guardian US news organization into the nation’s drinking water.
Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, access to safe water for all Americans has been a stated U.S. government goal. Yet millions of people continue to face serious water quality problems because of contamination, deteriorating infrastructure, and inadequate treatment at water plants.
CR and the Guardian selected 120 people from around the U.S., out of a pool of more than 6,000 volunteers, to test for arsenic, lead, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and other contaminants. The samples came from water systems that together service more than 19 million people.
120 Locations Tested Across the USA
Drinking water from 118 of the 120 locations tested across the US had levels of PFAS or arsenic above CR's recommended maximum or detectable amounts of lead.
The study has some limitations: The quality of the water at one location on a single day doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the water supplied by an entire system or at other times. But the ambitious undertaking, with community water systems chosen by CR’s statisticians (PDF) from a representative mix of systems across the country, provides a unique view into some of the most significant challenges in America’s ongoing drinking water crisis.
The challenges don’t stem from a technology problem. Filtration systems can cleanse water of contaminants. Yet they are not being used uniformly by community water systems.
Indeed, almost every sample tested had measurable levels of PFAS, a group of compounds found in hundreds of household products. These chemicals are linked to learning delays in children, cancer, and other health problems. More than 35 percent exceeded a safety threshold that CR scientists and other health experts believe should be the maximum.
Yet many consumers have never heard of PFAS.
Hung Ng, a resident of Florida, N.Y., says he has long used home water filters, in part to remove lead. But the 69-year-old says he didn’t know anything about PFAS until he had his water tested as part of this investigation, which found comparatively high levels of the chemicals in his water.
“Now I’ve got to find something to filter out the PFAS,” Ng says.
CR’s tests revealed other problems as well. About 8 percent of samples had levels of arsenic—which gets into drinking water through natural deposits or industrial or agricultural pollution—above CR’s recommended maximum for drinking water. And almost every sample had measurable amounts of lead, a heavy metal that leaches from corroding water lines and home plumbing fixtures. It is unsafe at any level.
In response to CR’s findings, Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson Andrea Drinkard says that 93 percent of the population supplied by community water systems gets water that meets “all health-based standards all of the time” and that the agency has set standards for more than 90 contaminants. That includes arsenic and lead but does not include PFAS.
America’s water crisis, while widespread, affects some communities more than others, according to an analysis of more than 140,000 public water systems published by the Guardian in February. It found that access to clean drinking water is highly unequal in the U.S., with water systems that service poorer and rural counties far more likely to have violations than those that provide water to wealthier or urban ones. Water systems in counties with large Latino populations were particularly likely to have violations, the Guardian found.
The PFAS results from CR’s tests are particularly troubling.
Manufacturers use PFAS to make stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, water-repellent clothing, nonstick cookware, and hundreds of other common products. The compounds can seep into water from factories, landfills, and other sources. And because they don’t easily break down in the environment, they’re often called “forever chemicals.”
Investigation into the health effects of PFAS exposure is ongoing, but some of the strongest evidence about their potential risks comes from research of about 69,000 people in and around Parkersburg, W.Va. The research—part of a settlement between DuPont, which makes some PFAS, and residents of the community—was depicted in the 2019 movie “Dark Waters.”
It found a “probable link” between exposure to a type of PFAS and six health problems: high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and testicular and kidney cancers. Research has also linked some PFAS to learning delays in children.
Most Americans have trace amounts of PFAS in their blood, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And at least 2,337 communities in 49 states have drinking water known to be contaminated with PFAS, according to a January analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization.
CR’s tests results confirm the ubiquity of the chemicals: We found PFAS in 117 of the 120 samples we tested, from locations across the country.
Despite mounting evidence of widespread contamination and health risks, the EPA has still not set an enforceable legal limit for PFAS in drinking water. Instead, it has established only voluntary limits, which apply to just two of the better-studied forever chemicals—PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid—at 70 parts per trillion combined. (For context, 1 ppt is the equivalent of one grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, according to some estimates.)
Many public health experts think those levels are far too high. Harvard environmental health professor Philippe Grandjean, PhD, has suggested that the limit should be just 1 ppt for PFOA and PFOS, citing his 2013 research—partly funded by the EPA—showing decreased vaccine response in children exposed to the chemicals. The EWG supports that threshold for total PFAS, pointing to Grandjean’s work as well as other research linking PFAS to health problems in rodents.
CR’s chief scientific officer, James Dickerson, PhD, agrees that when it comes to PFAS, “the lower the better.” CR’s scientists say the maximum allowed amount should be 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical and 10 ppt for two or more. That is in line with standards for bottled water that an industry group, the International Bottled Water Association, has its members adhere to.
Among the 120 samples CR tested, more than a third had PFAS levels above 10 ppt, and more than a quarter exceeded 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical.
Two samples had PFAS levels above the federal advisory level of 70 ppt, with the highest amount—80.2 ppt—coming from a sample that Jim Vaughn, a 76-year-old retired electrical equipment salesman, collected at his church in Pittsboro, N.C.
Vaughn wasn’t particularly surprised, he says. Places such as Pittsboro—a community of about 6,700 on the fringes of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, which is anchored by three universities and filled with industry and high-tech business—are used to getting “dumped on,” he says.
“It’s that little feeling of helplessness. Is there something that the town will do about it? Or will we let it ride?”
Indeed, residents of Pittsboro have reason to worry, beyond the results of CR’s tests. In 2007, an EPA study (PDF) found PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River Basin, a major source of drinking water for the eastern half of North Carolina. Some of the highest levels came from the Haw River in the basin’s north end—where Pittsboro gets its water.
Ongoing research out of Duke University, in nearby Durham, has also raised concerns. It found that levels of PFAS in a study of 49 Pittsboro residents’ blood are two to four times higher than that of the general U.S. population. Heather Stapleton, PhD, the project’s lead investigator, says Vaughn’s test results align with her team’s findings.
Stapleton’s team found a striking similarity between the levels of PFAS in the blood of Pittsboro residents and residents of the cities of Wilmington and Fayetteville, downstream from Pittsboro, raising concerns that the drinking water in those communities could be contaminated with PFAS, too, she says.
“If you think about the number of communities that could be impacted, it’s close to a million people, or 10 percent of North Carolina’s population,” she says.
Chris Kennedy, town manager for Pittsboro, says the town was not a source of PFAS but that it was “diligently working towards removing PFAS from our potable water supply.” He adds that the town is installing filters at the water treatment plant to remove at least 90 percent of PFAS by the end of 2021 and is taking steps “to reduce contamination into the Haw River, which will provide the best results long term.”
More than 1,200 miles away from Pittsboro, Sandy and Scott Phillips sat around their kitchen table in Texas on a weekday in February reflecting on the test results for their water samples.
Last year, looking to downsize, they built the custom home of their dreams in a new development in Round Rock, 20 miles north of Austin. Sandy Phillips especially enjoyed picking out everything from the floors to the kitchen cabinets.
“We paid a little extra for the white cabinets because I just love the clean look,” she says.
What the couple didn’t get to pick was their tap water supplier. Soon after moving in, they began to notice the water had an unusual odor, prompting them to invest thousands in a water softening and reverse osmosis water filtration system.
Not long after, the couple got their water tested as part of CR’s project, taking samples from water before it was filtered. The results were concerning: high not just in PFAS (32.8 ppt) but also in arsenic, at 3.3 parts per billion. “We get this gorgeous house,” Sandy Phillips says, “and then the water is terrible.”
Bill Brown, general manager of the Jonah Water Special Utility District, the couple’s water supplier, says it “has complied with all federal and state minimum contaminant level standards for arsenic and lead for many years.” He says that while CR’s results conflicted with its records, the water district will investigate. He did not comment on the PFAS found in the Phillipses’ water.
In the early 2000s, the EPA considered a drinking water limit for arsenic of 3 ppb, before settling on 10 ppb as an amount that balances the costs for water system operators while reducing health risks. CR scientists have long said the EPA should set a limit of 3 ppb or lower, in line with what other health experts and environmental advocacy groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have called for.
Almost every sample CR tested had measurable levels of arsenic, including 10—or about 8 percent—with levels between 3 and 10 ppb. Previous tests from CR and others have shown elevated levels in juices and baby foods.
Hundreds of water systems have exceeded the EPA’s 10-ppb limit. And though research indicates that the percentage of systems violating the rule has dropped over time, a 2017 NRDC study (PDF) found that more than 500 systems provided water with excessive arsenic to 1.8 million people in the U.S. in 2015.
...continued in Part 2