Levels of a widely used class of industrial chemicals linked with cancer and other health problems—polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs)—exceed federally recommended safety levels in public drinking water supplies for six million people in the U.S., according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study will be published August 9, 2016 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
“For many years, chemicals with unknown toxicities, such as PFASs, were allowed to be used and released to the environment, and we now have to face the severe consequences,” said lead author Xindi Hu, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School and Environmental Science and Engineering at SEAS. “In addition, the actual number of people exposed may be even higher than our study found, because government data for levels of these compounds in drinking water is lacking for almost a third of the U.S. population—about 100 million people.”
PFASs have been used over the past 60 years in industrial and commercial products ranging from food wrappers to clothing to pots and pans. They have been linked with cancer, hormone disruption, high cholesterol, and obesity. Although several major manufacturers have discontinued the use of some PFASs, the chemicals continue to persist in people and wildlife. Drinking water is one of the main routes through which people can be exposed.
The researchers looked at concentrations of six types of PFASs in drinking water supplies, using data from more than 36,000 water samples collected nationwide by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 2013–2015. They also looked at industrial sites that manufacture or use PFASs; at military fire training sites and civilian airports where fire-fighting foam containing PFASs is used; and at wastewater treatment plants. Discharges from these plants—which are unable to remove PFASs from wastewater by standard treatment methods—could contaminate groundwater. So could the sludge that the plants generate and which is frequently used as fertilizer.
The highest levels of PFASs were detected in watersheds near industrial sites, military bases, and wastewater treatment plants—all places where these chemicals may be used or found.
“These compounds are potent immunotoxicants in children and recent work suggests drinking water safety levels should be much lower than the provisional guidelines established by EPA,” said Elsie Sunderland, senior author of the study and associate professor in both the Harvard Chan School and SEAS.
Another Harvard Chan School study, led by Phillipe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, also suggested negative health impacts of PFAS exposure. That study looked at a group of about 600 adolescents from the Faroe Islands, an island country off the coast of Denmark.
Those exposed to PFASs at a young age had lower-than-expected levels of antibodies against diphtheria and tetanus, for which they had been immunized. The findings suggested that PFASs, which are known to interfere with immune function, may be involved in reducing the effectiveness of vaccines in children.