Millions of Americans are drinking water containing toxic levels of industrial chemicals used to make common household products, according to a new study.
These substances had been common in everything from stain-resistant clothing and upholstery to food packaging and fire retardant. But, the chemicals have also been associated with cancer and chronic diseases such as obesity and high cholesterol, and have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers over safety concerns. Still, they persist in the environment.
They are called PFASs, short for polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, and they have special properties that make them great for producing stuff that is nonstick, waterproof, or stain resistant, as the Environmental Protection Agency notes.
A team of Harvard University researchers have found levels of these chemicals that exceed federal standards in drinking water consumed by roughly 6 million people.
The most at-risk areas are near military fire training areas, certain airports, industrial sites, and wastewater treatment plants, the new study said.
"For many years, chemicals with unknown toxicities, such as PFASs, were allowed to be used and released to the environment, and we now have to face the severe consequences," said the study's lead author Xindi Hu, a doctoral student at Harvard, in a news release.
"In addition," she said, "the actual number of people exposed may be even higher than our study found, because government data for levels of these compounds in drinking water is lacking for almost a third of the U.S. population — about 100 million people."
The team published its findings Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.
This new study continues to shed light on the quality of tap water around the United States, as communities in Flint, Michigan, and elsewhere have been devastated by revelations of unsafe lead levels in their drinking supplies.
Separately, Brazil has been the subject of international scrutiny over the safety and quality of its coastal waters where Olympic events are being held.