We need water to survive – which is why it’s so shocking that a new study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reveals that nearly half of all drinking water in the United States contains toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, infertility, birth defects, and other hormonal issues.
According to Daily Mail, researchers tested 700 private and public water sources in the United States for per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). As a result, the USGS found that 45% of the tested drinking water sources contained at least one PFAS.
What Are PFAS?
PFAS refers to a group of over 12,000 synthetic chemicals and were first used in the 1940s in industrial and consumer products, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are known as “forever chemicals” because they remain in nature and the human body for years.
Today, these toxic substances can be found in hundreds of products across America. Often used to make everyday items like nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, cosmetics, fire-fighting foams, and some of the pesticides used by farmers to protect their crops, the widespread use of PFAS has resulted in increasing contamination of the air, water, and soil.
Even more concerningly, these endocrine-disrupting chemicals have shown up in the blood tests of humans and animals, and the FDA website notes that even though the science is continually developing, exposure to some types of PFAS is associated with serious health effects.
As CNN reports, in June 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued health advisories that claimed PFAS are “much more hazardous to human health than scientists originally thought and are probably more dangerous even at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.”
So, Who Is Impacted?
Most of the water that tested positive for contamination was discovered in urban areas or areas that manufactured PFAS, with the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the Eastern Seaboard, and Central and Southern California having the highest concentrations.
Daily Mail also points out that while 270 million Americans use public sources for their drinking water and 40 million use private wells, all of them are subject to ingesting these "forever chemicals." In fact, studies show PFAS are often present in so many places that toxicologists say it’s unsurprising they would exist in so much of the U.S.’s drinking water supply. Furthermore, the results of the USGS study might even be underestimating the real situation since the study only tested for 32 compounds.
There is “almost no place scientists have looked where they have not found PFAS.”
Dr. Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist who was not involved in the USGS study, summarized it perfectly when she said that there's “almost no place scientists have looked where they have not found PFAS.”
Another study from 2019 highlighted by CNN also suggests that PFAS chemicals are found in 98% of the U.S. population, adding that while new statistics show that 45% of all drinking water in the U.S. contains PFAS, the drop in percentage is likely due to a more concerted effort by the government to remove these chemicals from the water, along with the installation of water filters on home systems.
How Do PFAS Affect Fertility?
While the presence of PFAS can be linked to several health impacts, including liver damage, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer, it can, most notably, also cause infertility.
Mount Sinai Health System, an internationally acclaimed “integrated health care system” dedicated to research, patient care, and education, conducted a study that concluded that higher blood concentrations of PFAS are associated with a lower likelihood of pregnancy and live birth among women in Singapore of child-bearing age. The study considered 1,032 women, ages 18 to 45, in Singapore trying to conceive. Researchers measured PFAS in the women’s plasma between 2015 and 2017 and discovered that depending on their exposure to PFAS chemicals, they were up to 40% less likely to be able to conceive and deliver a healthy baby.
Shockingly, as Dr. Damaskini Valvi, a senior author of the study, notes, “PFAS may also decrease fertility in women who are generally healthy and are naturally trying to conceive.”
Research also tells us that women are not the only people whose fertility is affected by environmental toxins. According to the same study conducted by Mount Sinai Health System, “PFAS exposure begins in utero and transfers from the mother to the fetus.” Meaning, women can transfer PFAS to their developing babies in the womb, which can have serious lifelong health consequences.
Another study published in The National Library of Medicine, which analyzed the effects PFAS have on the placenta, pregnancy, and child development, found that “in utero exposure to environmental contaminants such as PFAS” can result in negative health outcomes during pregnancy and after birth. Some notable side effects of PFAS exposure in utero include increased incidence of gestational diabetes, childhood obesity, preeclampsia, and fetal growth restriction.
Additionally, it has been noted that frequent exposure to these “forever chemicals” can also cause a low sperm count in men and could negatively affect sex drive.
States across America are banning PFAS, and some companies are vowing to phase them out by the end of this year.
How Can We Avoid PFAs in Everyday Life?
While states across America are thankfully banning “forever chemicals,” with some companies vowing to phase them out by the end of this year, there are still some ways to avoid PFAS in the interim.
For starters, researchers behind the Mount Sinai study recommend minimizing exposure to these harmful contaminants by “avoiding foods associated with higher levels of these chemicals and by purchasing PFAS-free products.”
The Washington Post also highlights that while there’s no way to fully avoid PFAS, there are some things people can do to limit exposure.
After speaking with PFAS experts about the steps people can take to minimize exposure from food, many suggested cutting back on greasy food and greasy wrappers, skipping microwave popcorn, avoiding nonstick pans and cookware, storing leftovers in glass containers, drinking filtered or bottled water, and checking where fish is sourced before consuming it.
While we can’t live in fear, it’s important to be mindful of how our environment and chemical contaminants like PFAS impact our health so we can take preventative measures against them. It’s unfortunate that something as necessary to our health and well-being as water has been silently infecting Americans with hormone-changing “forever chemicals” for years. But hopefully, after years of research, the government will trust the science and continue its efforts to implement measures that prevent these toxins from harming future generations.
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