Studies Highlight Toxic Chemicals in Drinking Water

Aug 9, 2016

A study released this week highlights how 6 million Americans are living with drinking water that’s laced with toxic chemicals. Coupled with that report - another study that shows how those chemicals suppress the immune system - especially among children.


Something in the Drinking Water

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published research in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters that delved into thousands of drinking water samples from across the nation. Researchers looked for certain chemicals - called “perfluorinated” chemicals - which are linked to cancer and other health problems. These are common household chemicals that have been in use for decades in food wrappers, clothing, and on carpets and nonstick pots and pans. Researchers noted where concentrations were highest, and what possible sources of contamination exist.

“We found that water supplies close to industrial production facilities, military fire training areas, airports certified to use firefighting foams that contain perfluorinated chemicals, and wastewater treatment plants were more likely to have detectable levels of perfluorinated chemicals,” said one of the study’s authors, Laurel Schaider, PhD, from the Silent Spring Institute.

Contaminated water supplies were found in 33 states but were most prevalent in 13 states serving 6 million people: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois.

But those numbers might not reflect reality, according to researchers.

In a press release, lead author Xindi Hu, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School and Environmental Science and Engineering at SEAS said: “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 Ohio Valley Legacy

Chemicals were also detectable in Kentucky as well as in Ohio and West Virginia where a decade ago, one of the first known areas of contamination was discovered.

In 2005 it came to light that the chemical company DuPont contaminated water sources in the Ohio Valley with a perfluorinated chemical called PFOA or c8. A lawsuit established a broad medical study of affected residents, which Schaider says paved the way for further science.

"Engineers have already estimated it's going to take 200 years of filtration to get [C8] out of the water," said Vienna resident, Dr. Paul Brooks.

“A lot of what we know about the human health effects of PFOA come from the Ohio River Valley and the C8 Study where over 30,000 community members were involved in a health study,” Schaider said, “and the results showed that there were 6 health effects that were linked to their PFOA exposure.”

Kidney and testicular cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and thyroid disease are some of the maladies that were linked to exposure of PFOA.

In Vienna, West Virginia, residents like Paul Brooks, MD, have been living for decades with c8 levels in their drinking water above EPA’s long term exposure health advisory. When EPA announced the advisory this summer, construction began soon after to add filters to the water system. Brooks still doesn’t trust the water or the EPA’s advisory.

Brooks is a physician who helped set up the original C8 study in the area, drawing samples and taking health surveys from thousands of Ohio Valley residents.

“And with as much saturation as we have here in the environment,” Brooks said, “engineers have already estimated it’s going to take 200 years of filtration to get it out of the water.”

Brooks said health effects have been documented at levels lower than the EPA’s recommended standard. And for those with chronic exposure, he worries about the effects of bio-accumulating the chemical. Brooks uses an activated carbon filter in his home - which does filter out PFOA. Brooks says every drop of water in the region needs to be filtered.

A Long Term Study of Children’s Immune Responses

The second Harvard study released today builds on the C8 Study from the Ohio Valley, as well as a growing body of health research.

The study was led by Philippe Grandjean, MD, DMSc., who has become one of the foremost experts on health effects of these chemicals. His study looks at long term effects of perfluorinated chemicals on the immune systems of exposed children. He explains it takes years to pass the chemicals out of your system.

“They stay in the body for a long time,” Grandjean explained, “therefore it’s also plausible - while they harm the immune system today - they probably also will down the road. And that’s exactly what we found.”

Seven years ago the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory for anyone with short term exposure to PFOA. Then in May, a long-term health advisory was announced. Towns across the country in states like Vermont, Alabama, Michigan and West Virginia are all adjusting water systems to meet the new suggested threshold. Grandjean said the EPA’s advisory is a step in the right direction, but more action is required.

“The new water limits will essentially maintain status quo or if worse comes to worse, actually increase levels that are typical for Americans” Grandjean said. “If you drink that a lot of that water that is permissible, many Americans are likely to increase their body burden.”

Reducing Your Exposure

One of the Harvard report's authors, Laurel Schaider pointed out that drinking water is only one exposure path for these chemicals. She said filtering water is an important and effective way to protect yourself - but there are other thoughts to consider as well:

  • Avoid stain-resistant carpents and upholstery
  • Avoid "perfluor-", "polyfluor-", "PTFE" on labels
  • Select cast iron or enamel cookware
  • Eat more fresh foods to avoid fast food packaging
  • Minimize contact with fluorinated ski waxes
  • Ask yourself, do I need this product to have fluorinated chemicals?