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The Impact of 'Forever Chemicals' On U.S. Water Supply

Although you can’t see them, per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) live in tap water. Research shows exposure to these "forever chemicals" can lead to adverse health effects.

Despite these fears, Americans are continuing to drink tap water. A new survey from reveals what U.S. metro-area residents know about PFAS in their drinking water.

According to the CDC, PFAS is a collection of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Some examples of PFAS include perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

PFAS can be found in clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, certain cooking surfaces, and within electrical wire insulation. A major concern over forever chemicals is their ability to not break down over time and their potential to move through soils and water. Human PFAS exposure commonly occurs due to contaminated water. Studies show PFAS exposure in young people can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer occurring later in life.

A recent investigation surveyed 1,000 urban area residents within the United States. Of the respondents, only 25% were unaware of PFAS in their water. Still, three-fourths admitted to drinking their water. Just over half of the survey participants were able to describe what projects contain forever chemicals.

Data from finds New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, and North Carolina as the states with the most cities conducting PFAS tests. The founder of, Brian Campbell, explains how PFAS occurrence is more common on the coasts.

"Our data suggest some key factors that likely contribute to states with higher PFAS levels. Chief among these is the possibility that the volume of consumer products is significantly higher on the coasts where recorded PFAS levels appear highest," Campbell says. "This is likely due to east and west coast state economies being larger than those in the middle of the country, thus more products circulating that contain 'forever chemicals.' PFAS levels seem to vary widely between coastal and landlocked cities."

Cities with the highest PFAS levels (parts per trillion):

  1. San Luis Obispo, California - 931
  2. Issaquah, Washington - 916
  3. Hyannis, Massachusetts - 855
  4. Pittsboro, North Carolina - 845
  5. Fresno, California - 840

Cities with the lowest PFAS levels (parts per trillion):

  1. Sausalito, California - 0
  2. Los Angeles, California - 0.2
  3. Pueblo, Colorado - 0.4
  4. Fort Collins, Colorado - 0.6
  5. San Francisco, California - 0.8

Campbell states more PFAS tests are witnessing increased clean water results. More testing could reduce the prominence of PFAS in the U.S. water supply.

"Notably, the cities with the lowest PFAS levels are located in the majority of the top seven states that test for PFAS most often. These states are overwhelmingly located on the coasts," Campbell says.

In the survey, 78% of respondents cited health impacts due to PFAS. Slowly, steps are being taken to battle PFAS in public water supplies. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced a national drinking water standard for six forever chemicals.

Earlier this year, Maine became the first state to prohibit the sale of products containing PFAS. At the end of May, the Minnesota Legislature passed a ban on forever chemicals in consumer projects. Campbell suspects Americans are becoming more mindful of PFAS harm.

"Americans are becoming more aware and educated on what chemicals are in the water they consume daily," Campbell says. "While our findings don’t indicate causal factors influencing the significant rise in awareness, they do quantify that rise. For instance, we measured a 420% increase in search volume for 'PFAS meaning in water' over the past 12 months."

Preventing high PFAS levels

For those concerned about PFAS contamination, the EPA recommends contacting your local provider and locating your state’s safe drinking water standard to learn how they address the issue. The EPA suggests activated carbon treatment, high-pressure membranes, and ion exchange treatments as in-home technologies to reduce PFAS levels.

Higher PFAS levels in a mother’s body during pregnancy have been linked to childhood obesity. The EPA notes mothers can expose their infants to PFAS via breast milk. The EPA encourages expecting mothers to contact their doctors to learn about the risks and benefits of breastfeeding.

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