CDC study to track dangerous 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

The agency says there is much that is not known about the effects of PFAS chemicals on health, which led it to launch a $7 million multi-site study at sites around the United States.

By Matthew Worley
The CDC has identified seven sites for studies on PFAS contamination in the U.S. in an effort to learn about levels of contamination and their effects on health. Photo by priyanka98742/Pixabay
The CDC has identified seven sites for studies on PFAS contamination in the U.S. in an effort to learn about levels of contamination and their effects on health. Photo by priyanka98742/Pixabay

Sept. 27 (UPI) -- The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention announced a new multi-site study this week that will investigate the health effects of drinking water contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

The new study -- the first to examine multiple sites of PFAS contamination nationwide -- was authorized by the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2018 and 2019 to provide information to communities about the health effects of PFAS exposure.


The CDC will award initial grants totaling $7 million to begin the study, with a goal of understanding the relationship between PFAS exposure and health outcomes in differing populations.

The study will recruit at least 2,000 children ages 4 to 17, and 6,000 adults over age 18, who have been exposed to PFAS-contaminated drinking water. Participants and birth mothers of eligible children cannot have a history of work exposure to PFAS.


"They're called forever chemicals because once they get into the environment, they don't degrade," Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental watchdog agency, told UPI.

"The PFAS are never going to break down," she said. "Once they get into your body, they tend to accumulate in organs. They like to stick to proteins in your body. These are chemicals the body hasn't seen before, and they can basically affect every system -- your liver, your kidneys. They can disrupt the functioning of your thyroid and your hormone system. And they've been linked to some types of cancers, as well."

Among the major sources of PFAS contamination are PFAS-based firefighting foams, as well as a number of industrial and consumer products in use since the 1950s. PFAS chemicals have been used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, as well as some cosmetics.

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"These chemicals are used so widely in so many different products that they seem to be everywhere," Stoiber said.

Current acceptable standards for PFAS contamination of drinking water are now set at 70 parts per trillion, according to EPA guidelines. But experts disagree as to whether that standard is strict enough to effectively protect the public.


"The question as to what the actual level should be is hotly debated right now," said Scott Bartell, professor of Public Health at the University of California-Irvine, one of the schools involved in the study.

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"The EPA lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion is not based on the most current science, and what we already know about how these chemicals affect our bodies," Stoiber said. "Basically, everyone in the United States already has these chemicals in their blood at this point."

Bartell said that while the EPA is sticking with 70 parts per trillion, the agency only addresses the two most common types of PFAS. This leaves other chemicals that have no federally mandated standards.

"So it's very hard to say what an acceptable limit should be," Bartell said. "That's one of the reasons the CDC study is being done -- to try to better understand the whole suite of PFAS chemicals and their health implications."

Though the study will track the relationship between health outcomes and PFAS contamination in seven states -- Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and California -- experts say California is among the most severely affected.

"We have so many communities with different levels of PFAS in their water supplies," Bartell said. "We actually proposed a list of 15 or so water districts that are within 25 miles of UC Irvine Medical Center that all have measured levels of PFAS. Several of those have shown measurements that exceed the current EPA limits."


Areas near California's Camp Pendleton, Corona, Oroville and Rosemont, as well as a number of Sacramento suburbs, are said to be heavily impacted by the contamination.

The data on PFAS contamination in California highlights what Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook has called an "under the radar" issue that is much more widespread than was known, with roughly one in five California residents potentially in contact with PFAS-contaminated drinking water.

Beyond California, the issue is potentially as bad, if not worse -- which is why the CDC is mounting the newly announced series of studies.

"There is much that is unknown about the health effects of exposures to these chemicals," Patrick Breysse, director of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, said in a statement.

"The multi-site study will advance the scientific evidence on the human health effects of PFAS and provide some answers to communities exposed to the contaminated drinking water," Breysse said.

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