Recent research conducted by the United States Geological Survey (“USGS”) determined that at least 45% of the tap water in the United States is projected to contain at least one type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”). The USGS’s study assessed over 700 private and public tap water supplies in the United States, though they believe that the lack of detailed information about PFAS exposure in unregulated private wells may impact their projected estimated of PFAS-impacted tap water.

USGS’s research compared human PFAS exposures in 716 different locations, with 269 unregulated private wells, and 447 regulated public-supply tap water sources analyzed across the US from 2016–2021. The study found estimated median cumulative concentrations being similar among private wells and the public-supply. USGS has determined that the results are definitive evidence that further assessments of the health risks of PFAS as a class of contaminant, and in combination with other co-occurring contaminants (meaning other contaminants which are likely to be present alongside PFAS), are necessary.

Pictured Above: An infographic from USGS’s survey on PFAS exposures in drinking water sources.

PFAS exposure continues to be a central issue to global human health.

With dramatic changes in weather across the world, the importance of clean drinking water has become a key issue for the public. Population driven demands for clean water, in combination with increasing contamination of drinking water sources, have experts concerned. As our understanding of the harmful effects of PFAS on human health and the environment continues to grow, the notion of these “forever chemicals” building up in our food and water has the environmental and scientific communities scrambling to find not just answers, but also solutions.

The study completed by USGS found that due to the persistence, toxicity, and “bioaccumulation potential” (the potential for a substance to accumulate within the body faster than the body is capable of expelling it) of PFAS, action is being taken worldwide by both industries and regulators to reduce the use and release of PFAS. In many cases, this means that the use of “legacy” PFAS is being replaced by other derivatives with similar qualities, such as perfluorobutanoic acid (“PFBA”), perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (“PFBS”), perfluorohexanoic acid (“PFHxA”), in addition to perfluoroether carboxylic acids. Though these other substances are claimed to be less bioaccumulative than the types of PFAS historically used, they still may pose a risk to human health and the environment. Studies have found that these other perfluoro- substances are quickly becoming the dominant PFAS contaminants in aquatic ecosystems, with their long-term effects on those ecosystems being unknown.

Exposure to PFAS comes in many different forms and is difficult to avoid.

The study by USGS highlighted the difficulty in combatting PFAS exposure. For example, PFAS are widely documented in human plasma and can be transferred pre- and post-natally. This means that nursing mothers who have been exposed to PFAS may pass it along to their infants via their breast milk. Other pathways of PFAS exposure include the aforementioned exposure via drinking water, which then leads to the accumulation and concentration of PFAS in wastewater treatment facilities, septic systems, stormwater (the surface water which accumulates from heavy rain or snow), and landfills.

PFAS exposure can also occur in more mundane settings. Because the chemical properties of PFAS make them excellent at repelling and diverting water, they have historically been used in consumer products where those properties are desired. This includes products such as cookware, clothing, food packaging, and carpeting. Other uses include aqueous film-forming foams (“AFFFs”) for firefighting, waxes, and leather-treatment products.

What’s next?

While manufacturers are becoming more aware of the harms posed by PFAS, there is not yet a global standard for when and where PFAS can be safely used. With the world economy constantly becoming more integrated, work towards a global consensus on the responsible use and disposal of PFAS continues. For the time being, exposure to PFAS through drinking water is a global concern to human health and extends beyond the borders of the United States. Public concerns regarding PFAS ballooned thanks in large part to the hard work of Taft’s environmental team, with Taft attorney Rob Bilott leading the way. If you would like to learn more or have a legal issue related to PFAS, please contact one of Taft’s experienced environmental attorneys.