PFAS substances, also known as "forever chemicals", are a collection of toxic substances that are found in groundwater and drinking water throughout the United States. Once these substances enter the environment and our bodies, they never break down. Accumulating over time, PFAS chemicals from drinking water put Americans at an elevated risk for serious health problems including testicular cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer and pancreatic cancer.
In areas where PFAS groundwater contamination has occurred, entire communities are exposed to PFAS in drinking water. The federal government has documented PFAS in the drinking water of up to 110 million Americans. A key source of PFAS in drinking water is believed to be fire-fighting foam which has been in widespread use by the military since 1969. This page contains comprehensive information on PFAS in drinking water including how these substances entered the groundwater and what effects PFAS drinking water has on human health.
PFAS, which stands for per- and poly-fluoroakyl chemicals, did not exist in groundwater or anywhere in nature before they were developed by scientists in the 1940s. Characterized by their carbon-fluorine bonds, PFAS are the most pervasive chemicals in existence, meaning they never break down. There are thousands of PFAS chemicals in existence, including PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which Dupont developed to create Teflon, and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), which the federal government developed for its Scotchgard.
PFAS chemicals, which have been in heavy use for decades, are released into groundwater through solid-waste landfills and wastewater treatment plants, from airports and military bases, as well as from a range of industrial facilities including electroplaters, metal finishers, and petroleum refiners. Having been released at military and industrial sites around the country, PFAS chemicals are now found in groundwater and throughout our environment–in streams, lakes and oceans; in drinking water, both municipal and domestic; in plant matter including crops and food; and in our bodies.
Individuals can take steps to limit some of their PFAS exposure, but this exposure is largely out of our hands because of PFAS contamination of drinking water. Scientists are increasingly looking to military bases and airports as key PFAS groundwater polluters. A technology known as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) has been in widespread use by the military for putting out fires. Sprayed on fires during both training scenarios and actual emergencies, fire-fighting foam contains fluorinated PFAS chemicals. For decades, this substance has been used prolifically, with no regard to the risk of PFAS drinking water contamination.
Fire fighting foam was developed in the 1960s through a collaboration between the Navy and the federal government. By 1969, fire-fighting foam was required by the military in fire training, equipment testing, and emergency response. Since the 1970s, Navy and the federal government scientists have been vocal about the health risks of fire fighting foam, yet PFAS are still in widespread use. The timeline of the military's response to the threat of PFAS contaminated drinking water is one of inaction and neglect:
As of 2020, all military operations had phased out the use of fire-fighting foam containing PFOA and PFOS, which are known as "long chain" PFAS chemicals. However, the new fire-fighting foam utilizes "short-chain" PFAS substances. Short chain PFAS substances also cause cancer and scientists warn they may be more dangerous than their precursors. In comparison, PFAS-free fire fighting foam is now in wide use across Europe. At this time, the Pentagon acknowledges 401 sites where PFAS chemicals have been released into the ground. This information is incomplete, and no one knows exactly how extensive the problem actually is.
A major issue with releasing PFAS chemicals at airports and military bases is that these dangerous chemicals do not stay where they are dropped. PFAS substances seep through groundwater and travel to remote regions through the atmosphere. PFAS "forever" chemicals have been detected in locations as far-flung as the Arctic.
Groundwater flow is a slow seepage of water along established flow paths under the surface of the earth. Water moves in predictable ways through different types of matter, varying in how far it travels based on whether the soil is loose or compact, or whether the area has underground rock, root systems, or other types of matter. PFAS chemicals released into the environment travel with groundwater wherever it goes; groundwater seepage paths range from a few feet to hundreds of miles.
Groundwater eventually flows to "discharge" areas where it joins other waterways such as streams, lakes, rivers and wetlands. Ultimately, groundwater joins the ocean. In this way, PFAS chemicals have spread to many of our water sources and around our entire world. In the United States, groundwater is the water source for half of our population, including the many homes that rely on wells. Testing of drinking water sources reveals that at least 110,000 million Americans rely on drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals. PFAS drinking water contamination has been found to increase the risk for testicular cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer and pancreatic cancer, in addition to other health and reproductive problems.
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