Water and chemicals that never go away are subjects of Consumer Reports cover story

Water and chemicals that never go away are subjects of Consumer Reports cover story

by Sue Jones
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The new Consumer Reports soon hitting mailboxes returns to one of CR’s old mainstays—Safe drinking water. In short order, it teaches how to check on your tap water, discloses test results for 45 bottled water brands, and runs down the facts on water filters.

It was 45 years ago that Consumer Reports (CR) helped Congress enact the “Safe Drinking Water Act,”  The new cover story finds people today still have reason to be concerned about contaminants in their water.  New tests from CR found potentially dangerous levels of chemicals in some brands of bottled waters.

But the heart of CR’s cover story is a lawsuit brought by a Pennsylvania couple, Frank and Lisa Penna, who think learning delays in their children and cancers, are caused by their water.

The culprit is through to be PFAS, for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, “the chemicals in this class of approximately 5,000 substances have become notorious as much for their potential danger as for their perseverance,” according to CR. It quickly adds:

  • Because the chemical bonds that hold the compounds together don’t break down easily, they last a very long time—a reality that has led to a commonly used name for the group: “forever chemicals.” 
  • PFAS compounds are also ubiquitous, used in a range of products, from food- delivery boxes to nonstick cookware to stain-resistant clothing.
  • But one of the most troubling routes to PFAS exposure is drinking water that has been contaminated by discharges from factories and other facilities. 

Indeed, PFAS are detectable in the drinking water of more than 1,400 communities in 49 states, according to research by the PFAS Project at Northeastern University in Boston and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization that estimates 110 million people may have tap water contaminated with the chemicals. 

The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates U.S. drinking water, has been investigating PFAS since the late 1990s, but only with a voluntary guideline of 70 parts per trillion with no change over 20 years. Some scientists and environmental organizations have come down for a 1 ppt level, according to CR.

Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy, says the EPA has not taken a scientific approach to the issue. Ronholm is a former deputy USDA undersecretary for food safety. He suggests its time for Congress to “pass legislation that establishes PFAS limits in drinking water.”

A national standard would presumably apply to both tap water, which EPA regulates, and bottled water, which falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

CR’s water issue reports on the testing of 47 bottled water brands, and 43 of them contained PFASs.  Carbonated waters are more likely to contain PFASs with several above the suggested 1 ppt limit.

In their lawsuit, the Penna’s, “allege one possible explanation for the EPA’s delay: The government itself is a major PFAS polluter and is avoiding substantial cleanup costs.”  In the 2016 civil action, the Penna’s allege that PFAS migrated from the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove, to groundwater near their home.

Thousands of gallons of firefighting foam, which contains PFAS, had been dumped at the base during exercises over many years, they allege.  Tests of their private well found PFOA and PFOS levels of 298 ppt and 701 ppt, respectively—up to 10 times the EPA’s voluntary limit.

CR reports the Pennas’ case went to trial in August. Part of the government’s defense? It can’t be held liable because PFAS are “unregulated.”

To avoid PFAS is your water, CR reports that various checks, tests, and filters can all be part of a successful strategy.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here)

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