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Millions Of Americans May Be Drinking Unsafe Water

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A new study shows that millions of Americans may be drinking unsafe water that contains high levels of industrial chemicals. The chemicals, polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances or PFASs, have been known to play a role in hormone suppression, obesity, high cholesterol and even cancer, CNN reports.

PFASs have been around for the past 60 years and are man-made chemicals that take a long time to break down, if at all.

Xindi Hu, lead author on the new study and a doctoral student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explains that “PFASs are organic compounds that are really useful.” They are used to make packaging materials, nonstick cooking pans, fabrics, and firefighting foams.

Because these chemicals are present in almost every household item, they get into the air, dust, food, soil, and of course, water.

While PFASs may be useful, they remain in the human body for a long time. Other chemicals can be purged within hours, but it takes about three and a half years for the body to excrete just half of the amount ingested. And when a person is exposed to these chemicals daily, they accumulate until it takes a much longer time to get rid of them.

Susan M. Pinney, an environmental health professor at the University of Cincinnati, says that the one form of PFAS she has studied “gets stored in the blood serum, the liver, and some other organs.” Pinney, who was not involved in the research, says the overall health effects of these chemicals may not be drastic, but they do cause subtle changes in cholesterol and puberty development. She adds that scientists have not discovered all the physical effects the PFASs may have.

Arlene Blum, a co-author on this study, a chemist and executive director of Green Science Policy Institute, says that PFASs are everywhere, even “in wildlife and human tissue and bodily fluids all over the globe.” She headed a 2015 initiative to restrict the use of PFAss, which was signed by over 200 international scientists.

Hu, Blum and their colleagues analyzed more than 36,000 water samples collected between 2013 and 2015 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The researchers found that 66 public water supplies providing water to 6 million people in the US contained at least one sample that hit or went over the EPA recommended safety limit. The limit is 70 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid, two kinds of PFASs. Areas with the highest concentration levels were Delaware, Newark, and Warminster, Pennsylvania.

The EPA did not comment on the study but did state that the main company making perfluorooctanesulfonic acid had stopped using the chemical between 2000 and 2002. Four years later, eight more major manufacturers agreed to phase out their global use of perfluorooctanoic acid and other chemicals, although a handful of companies do continue to use them.

Even so, the research shows that 16.5 million Americans have at least one of six PFASs types in their drinking water at levels at or above the safe EPA limit. The highest concentrations were in watersheds near industrial areas, military bases, and water treatment plants.

There are 194 water supplies with chemical levels recorded at greater than normal, located in 33 states. Three-fourths of those water supplies were confined to just 13 states: New Jersey, North Carolina, California, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, Ohio, Arizona, Minnesota, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

A second study, also from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, finds that these chemicals may be having an adverse effect on children’s immune systems.

Dr. Philippe Grandjean, lead author on the study and adjunct professor of environmental health, examined 600 teenagers from the Faroe Islands with a team of researchers. Their results suggested that people exposed to PFASs at a young age had antibodies at levels lower than expected for tetanus and diphtheria, even with immunization.

Grandjean says the same effect was seen in measles and influenza for other children. PFASs are known to disrupt the immune system, which Grandjean says accounts for the reduced effectivity of vaccines. “To what extent [PFASs] interfere with other immune functions is unclear,” he says.

Pinney adds that as with other environmental chemicals, it may take a while to understand completely how PFASs affect human health. The good news is that perfluorooctanoic acid, one of the most produced and studied PFASs, has not been used by the industry in a long time due to its known harmful effects. This, in turn, has meant that there are lower perfluorooctanoic acid levels in people.

Blum says she wants to restrict all PFASs chemicals because banning one just introduces a “cousin.” “Our position is, given that these chemicals never break down in our environment, they should only be used when needed,” she says. “What we consider the most harmful chemicals can be reduced by 50%, and that would be a huge benefit to our health.”

The first study was published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, the second in Environmental Health Perspectives.

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