Equilibrium & Sustainability

Communities of color disproportionately exposed to ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water: study

FILE – A trickle of water comes out of the faucet of Mary Gaines a resident of the Golden Keys Senior Living apartments in her kitchen in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 1, 2022. The NAACP said Tuesday, Sept. 27, that Mississippi is discriminating against Jackson’s majority-Black population by diverting badly needed federal funds for drinking water infrastructure to white communities that needed it less. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Residents of communities with bigger Black and Hispanic populations are more likely to be exposed to harmful levels of “forever chemicals” in their water supplies, a new study has found.

This increased risk of exposure is the result of the disproportionate placement of pollution sources near watersheds that serve these communities, according to the study, published on Monday in Environmental Science & Technology. 

Some such sites known to discharge per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) include industrial manufacturers, airports, military bases, wastewater treatment plants and landfills, per the study.

“Our work suggests that the sociodemographic groups that are often stressed by other factors, including marginalization, racism, and poverty, are also more highly exposed to PFAS in drinking water,” first author Jahred Liddie, a PhD student at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement.

“Environmental justice is a major emphasis of the current administration and this work shows it should be considered in the upcoming regulations for PFAS in drinking water,” Liddie added.

Known for its presence in both industrial discharge and in firefighting foam used to combat jet fuel fires, PFAS is common in waste released by military bases, civilian and manufacturing facilities.

These compounds — of which there are thousands — linger in both the human body and in the environment and have been linked to a variety of illnesses and cancers.

To draw their conclusions, the Harvard researchers used PFAS monitoring data from 7,873 community water systems in 18 states where such information is widely available.

Their analysis included 44,111 samples collected between January 2016 and August 2022.

The researchers discovered that PFAS detection had a positive association with the number of PFAS sources and proportions of people of color served by a given water system.

Each additional industrial site, military fire training area and airport in a community’s watershed was linked to a 10-108 percent hike in levels of PFOA and a 20-34 percent increase in levels of PFOS, according to the study. PFOA and PFOS are two of the most notorious and well-studied types of PFAS.

Senior author Elsie Sunderland, a Harvard professor of environmental chemistry, said she found the results particularly concerning because previous research has shown that “marginalized populations are susceptible to greater risks of adverse health outcomes compared to other populations.”

“Regulating releases from PFAS sources and ensuring that people have safe drinking water is especially important in the most vulnerable communities to protect public health,” Sunderland added. 

Tags drinking water Forever chemicals PFAS

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