More than six million Americans across 33 states are drinking water laced with unsafe levels of poisonous chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems, according to a new Harvard study released on Tuesday.
Poisonous concentrations of household and industrial chemicals have been found in the drinking water of almost a third of the U.S. population, Harvard researcher Xindi Hu wrote in a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
“For many years, chemicals with unknown toxicities, such as PFASs, were allowed to be used and released to the environment.”
The poisonous chemicals in the drinking water are called polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkly, also known as PFASs.
The news comes on the heels of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where at least 8,000 children were exposed to drinking water contaminated by lead, but the new Harvard study suggests the problem may be much worse.
Dangerous levels of chemicals were found in 33 states across the country, but 13 had the highest concentration of PFASs, which are associated with cancer and other health problems, Hu told Think Progress.
“We didn’t know anything about the toxicology of those compounds but we used [them] anyway. Now we are facing the severe consequence of having to fix the problem.”
The states with the highest concentrations of poisonous chemicals in their drinking water are (in order): California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
In some cases, the drinking water being studied had chemical concentrations much higher than allowed by the EPA: 25 times higher in Newark, Delaware, and five times higher for Warminster Pennsylvania. The Harvard researchers discovered that 66 of the public water supplies examined, which serve six million people, had at least one water sample that measured at or above the EPA safety limit
Safety officials monitoring the country’s public drinking water supply have yet to find a way to remove the dangerous chemicals from drinking water supplies.
Hu, a doctoral student at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, studied 36,000 drinking water samples from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
She discovered industrial sites were responsible for contaminating ground water supplies with the chemicals normally used to make food wrappers, pots, pans, cleaners, leather, paper, paint, and clothing, according to the Harvard Gazette.
“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.”
The chemicals have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, high cholesterol, obesity, and other health problems.
Many of the industrial sites associated with the contaminated water. Military fire-training sites, waste water plants, and airports using firefighting foam have stopped using the dangerous chemicals, but they continue to hang around in public drinking water supplies.
Hu’s colleague and senior author of the study, Elsie Sunderland, an associate professor at both the Harvard Chan School and SEAS noted the seriousness of the drinking water study, according to CBS News.
“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.”
Immunotoxicants are chemicals that inhibit the immune system and stop the body’s ability to fight off infectious diseases or even cancer; they’ve also been linked to birth defects in humans and adverse health in animals.
The chemicals have been commonly used in industrial complexes for the past 60 years, and it’s only now that scientists have begun to understand their danger, Hu told CBS News.
“I think this study has important public health implications because drinking water affects so many people and we need to be careful about what chemicals we use and how we dispose of them in the environment.”
The EPA admits the PFSA chemicals are toxic but doesn’t tightly regulate their levels in public drinking water.
What do you think of the news that six million people are drinking water contaminated with chemicals?
[Photo by Imgorthand/iStock]