Energy & Environment

Lack of ‘forever chemicals’ testing could be leaving most victims in the dark

water fountain
AP Photo/Jim Cole
Water flows from a water fountain at the Boys and Girls Club in Concord, N.H. The state has 469 known PFAS contamination sites.

Sandy Wynn-Stelt had thought her Michigan home was across the street from a Christmas tree farm, but she said in a lawsuit settled earlier this year that it was actually a toxic dump that contaminated her water.

In 2017, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality came to Wynn-Stelt’s house to test her water, a test she believed at the time to be random. The test, however, turned up high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals” because they tend to linger in the environment and human bodies instead of breaking down.

The class of chemicals, of which there are thousands, have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, as well as thyroid disease.

When Wynn-Stelt was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year, she said she had already known she had high levels of PFAS in her blood. 

“Was I surprised in the moment? Yes. Was I surprised overall that I developed cancer from drinking Scotchgard from the tap, no,” she said, referencing the name of a stain-repellant product made with PFAS.

However, at least Wynn-Stelt was able to get testing and stopped drinking the contaminated water. She fears that other people may be in a similar situation and not even know it. 

“I’d still be drinking Scotchgard from the tap if somebody hadn’t tested,” Wynn-Stelt told The Hill in an interview. 

“I’m afraid there’s more places like us that have these places where industry dumped … and people are still drinking contaminated water with absolutely no idea of it,” she added.

Research shows that people all around the country are being impacted by PFAS contamination and may not even know it. 

The PFAS Project Lab, an organization that researches the chemicals, has identified nearly 1,800 “known” sites of confirmed PFAS contamination. 

But a recent study affiliated with the lab found more than 30 times as many sites — 57,000 of them — that are presumably contaminated but haven’t been officially identified. 

Study author Alissa Cordner said that the large disparity between sites that have been officially identified and those that have not means that a significant number of communities are probably completely unaware of the effects the chemicals are having on their lives. 

“There absolutely are more Parkersburgs out there,” Cordner said, referring to a community in West Virginia infamous for contamination coming from a local Teflon factory. 

“There are more places that have decades of accumulated contamination that we just don’t know about because the testing hasn’t been conducted,” she added.

The study, from Cordner and her colleagues, shows a myriad of locations around the country with few to no officially known PFAS sites — but many suspected or presumed ones. 

That includes major cities, such as New York, which doesn’t appear to have any known sites of PFAS contamination, but dozens of sites that can be reasonably expected to be contaminated.

The same is true of more rural areas. States including Idaho and Utah only have two or three known PFAS sites apiece, but dozens of presumed or suspected ones, including airports, industrial facilities, military installations and wastewater treatment plants. 

David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, which does research and advocacy on PFAS, said that people who drink water from wells, as well as those who live in smaller communities, are more likely to be vulnerable, as their water is likely to come under less scrutiny. 

“The place that is most susceptible is actually smaller communities and those on well water, places where there hasn’t been any testing to date” Andrews said.

Ayesha Khan, co-founder of the Nantucket PFAS Action Group, similarly raised concerns about small islands like hers, where many people drink well water. 

The Massachusetts island’s airport has been identified as a “known” PFAS source, but Khan worries about other, nearby small communities where small wells may not get testing. 

“These islands have a lot of wells … and next to those private wells, they do have airports, they do have landfills, they do have wastewater treatment facilities, and those private well homeowners have no resources, they have no access to this information and they’re not being told to test their waters,” she said. 

And while testing in many regions is lacking, those who have invested in PFAS testing have often turned up a great deal of it. 

While many states on the latest map have just a handful of known PFAS sites, New Hampshire has 469. Cordner said this is more because the state has a robust testing program than a particular abundance of chemicals. 

Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said it would require public drinking water systems to monitor for 29 types of PFAS. But there are thousands of types of the chemicals, and not everyone gets their water from public systems. 

The EPA also has some reporting requirements that Andrews said are expected to at least improve upon the information that the government currently has. 

“I think within a few years we’ll have a much clearer understanding of the extent of contamination and what are the significant sources into the environment,” he said. 

The EPA did not respond to questions from The Hill. 

Tags forever chemicals PFAS PFAS chemicals
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