FEATURED:

6 million Americans are drinking contaminated water linked to cancer

6 million Americans are drinking contaminated water linked to cancer
© Getty Images

More than 6 million Americans are drinking water polluted with highly fluorinated chemicals.

The most-studied chemicals in the class are linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, decreased immune function in children, and other serious health problems.

Highly fluorinated chemicals are found in firefighting foam used by military and domestic airports, furniture, carpets, outdoor gear, clothing, cosmetics, cookware and food packaging. The chemicals make their way from manufacturing facilities, consumer products and firefighting activities into the air, water, and food, and then into humans.

ADVERTISEMENT

The health impact of these chemicals, which are increasingly being found in our drinking water, is very concerning. Some scientists say we are carrying out an unintended chemical experiment on our population. Patrick Breysse, Director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, described highly fluorinated chemicals as “one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decades.”

 

A recent analysis indicated that the number of Americans with contaminated drinking water is much higher than scientists had estimated. One of the nation’s largest water testing labs estimated that a quarter of our nation’s water systems are likely to contain these chemicals at levels of concern to some scientists. 

A new, peer-reviewed letter calling for coordinated health research in U.S. communities with drinking water contaminated by highly fluorinated chemicals was published in the journal Environmental Health this week. Thirty-nine leading scientists and physicians signed this letter, which was sent to legislators on key committees in the House and Senate and in impacted regions to draw attention to the pollution of drinking water with these chemicals. The Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration also received this letter, because firefighting foams used at military bases and airports are responsible for a major share of the contamination. 

The government’s current response is not adequate. We need a coordinated strategy to study health effects and reduce exposure. This strategy would provide impacted communities with the information, blood testing, health studies and medical monitoring that they are urgently requesting.

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have also been asking for action to address this pollution. Some good news is that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which passed the Senate and House this week includes a provision for $7 million to begin a five to seven-year-long health study of communities affected by these firefighting foam chemicals. The legislation would also establish the first-ever nationwide study on the human health effects of exposure to highly fluorinated chemicals from drinking water.

The NDAA also calls for $72 million to be added the Air Force and Navy’s environmental restoration accounts, to be spent on cleaning up impacted areas. 

Another provision in the NDAA meant to help prevent future contamination needs to be modified to achieve its goal. Highly fluorinated chemicals are currently required to be used for fighting aviation fires at both military and domestic airports because of a Department of Defense rule commonly referred to as the Milspec.

According to the third provision in the NDAA, the department is required to submit a report on its development of new firefighting foams and phase out of old varieties of foam within six months. The unfortunate reality is that the new varieties of foam currently in use are also highly fluorinated. These regrettable substitutes are equally persistent in the environment and may cause similar health and ecological problems as the older ones they are replacing. 

A better solution to the problem is switching to the fluorine-free foams increasingly used on oil drilling platforms and in military and domestic airports around the world. However, before our airports can consider switching to safer fluorine-free foams, the Defense Department’s Milspec rule needs to be updated to allow their use. 

With NDAA funding for coordinated health studies and remediation in impacted communities, as well as a change in the Milspec to allow fluorine-free firefighting foams, we would indeed be moving towards both solving the current problem and preventing future reoccurrences — for healthier drinking water and a healthier population.

Arlene Blum, Ph.D., is a research associate in Chemistry at UC Berkeley and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, known for her scientific and policy work to limit the use of six classes of chemicals of concern.

Tom Bruton, Ph.D., is a Science and Policy fellow at the Green Science Policy Institute. Bruton studies the remediation of soil and groundwater contaminated with highly fluorinated chemicals.