Sustainability Environment

Drinking water in these major cities is contaminated with toxic chemicals

tap water being poured into a drinking glass

Story at a glance

  • PFAs are a chemical compound that can be toxic if they build up in the body, increasing the risk of cancer and other diseases.
  • A new report found that drinking water in many major American cities is contaminated with PFAs.
  • There are no federal regulations on PFAs, but some states have implemented their own laws.

More Americans are drinking contaminated water than previously thought, according to a report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG)

In dozens of major metropolitan areas, including Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City, drinking water is contaminated by toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS coming from factories where they’re used in chemical processes and traveling through rain and surface water.

They’re known as “forever chemicals,” because they don’t break down naturally and will build up in our bodies, increasing the risk of cancer, reducing the effectiveness of vaccines and harming the development of fetuses. 

To some degree, we can’t escape them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says nearly all Americans have PFAS in their blood, and the health effects of low levels of these forever chemicals are unknown. But while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed the most dangerous of these — PFOAs and PFOS — as hazardous substances, the report found that they’re in most water systems. 

And while the EPA found no PFAS in 36 of 43 water systems tested in 2012, environmental watchdog EWG found nearly the opposite in 2020. Only one place, Meridian, Miss., had no PFAS in their drinking water out of 44 cities in 31 states and Washington, D.C., Brunswick County, N.C., and the Quad Cities in Iowa had the highest levels of PFAs in their tap water, more than the EPA’s suggested limit.

While there are no federal regulations on PFAS, some states have set legal limits, including New Jersey, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New York — all of which appeared on the list of places where PFAs were found to contaminate their drinking water.