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New data from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” found widespread in Pennsylvania water

PENNSYLVANIA – Pennsylvania residents are among 89.3 million people nationwide whose drinking water has tested positive for toxic “forever chemicals” collectively known as PFAS, according to new data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In April, the EPA adopted landmark drinking water standards that set strict limits on PFOA and PFOS, two of the most toxic chemicals in existence. The latest round of testing found at least one of the 29 types of PFAS in a third of 4,750 public water systems tested in 2023 and 2024.

According to the EPA, 178 public water systems tested positive for PFAS.

An Environmental Working Group analysis of PFAS data incorporating the new test results shows a large concentration of affected water systems in southeastern Pennsylvania, many of them in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Fewer affected systems were in southwestern Pennsylvania in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. There are also many contaminated water systems in the Harrisburg area and, to a lesser extent, northeastern Pennsylvania, the map shows.

The true extent of PFAS contamination in public drinking water is likely much greater, as recent testing was conducted on only a third of the water systems that serve 90 percent of the U.S. population.

Every public water utility with more than 3,000 customers is required to test for the 29 individual PFAS chemicals by 2026. The new regulations require public water utilities to reduce PFAS levels to near zero in the long term.

The rule is the first national drinking water cap on toxic PFAS, which are widespread and persistent in the environment and have been linked to cancer and a host of other health problems. They are ubiquitous, found in everything from food packaging and cookware to dental floss and other personal care products to children's toys and firefighting foams.

Water utilities are entering a new era with significant additional health standards that the EPA says will make tap water safer for millions of consumers – a priority of the Biden administration. The agency has also proposed forcing utilities to remove dangerous lead pipes.

Energy providers warn that the new regulations will cost tens of billions of dollars each and will hit small communities with fewer resources the hardest. Legal action is inevitable.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in April that the rule was the most important action the EPA had ever taken on PFAS.

“The result is a comprehensive and life-changing regulation that will improve the health and vitality of so many communities across our country,” Regan said at the time.

Environmental and health advocates praised the rule but said PFAS producers knew decades ago that the substances were dangerous but concealed or downplayed the evidence. Limits should have been introduced earlier, they argue.

“Reducing PFAS in our drinking water is the most cost-effective way to reduce our exposure,” said Scott Faber, a food and water expert at the Environmental Working Group. “It's much harder to reduce other exposures, like PFAS in food, clothing or carpets.”

The EPA has drastically changed its health guidelines for persistent chemicals in recent years as more research on health effects has emerged. Less than a decade ago, the EPA issued a health warning that combined PFOA and PFOS levels should not exceed 70 parts per million. Now the agency says no amount is safe.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

Anna Harden

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