Drinking Water Has Highest Contamination Levels in These Five States

A map shows the five states with the most water systems where drinking water levels exceed the proposed limit for PFAS (man-made “forever” chemicals).

New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania have the most contaminated drinking water systems, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) interactive map.

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A Newsweek analysis found that there are about 556 in New Jersey, 439 in Massachusetts, 263 in California, 202 in New Hampshire and 125 in Pennsylvania.

It is important to note that the EWG has created its map based on the maximum values ​​listed at a specific point in time. In other words, it does not take into account average values ​​or whether a water system is treated.

EWG deputy director and chief scientist David Andrews told Newsweek: “What we know – and there are actually several different studies looking at possible sources of PFAS contamination and how they get into the water – is that there is a strong association with urban areas in particular.”

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“It goes hand in hand with industrialization, the use of consumer and industrial products, but especially with some of the biggest sources of contamination, which are fire training facilities or airports. That's because they had to use a firefighting foam that had high levels of PFAS. Many airports and Department of Defense sites are known to be highly contaminated.”

“And then industrial manufacturing facilities – facilities that can release directly into water and air, but also landfilling of materials – have led to some very high levels,” Andrews added.

“There are many, many industries that use these chemicals – electroplating plants, textile mills … These chemicals are now ubiquitous in society. States like New Jersey have a long history of producing these chemicals on a large scale.”

The Environmental Protection Agency recently introduced new regulations for PFAS levels in drinking water.

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The California State Water Resources Control Board told Newsweek: “The proposed maximum containment levels for the six PFAS are fully in line with our recommended compliance limits.

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“PFAS monitoring has been conducted in public water systems since 2019, with a focus on areas near known or suspected industrial PFAS sources.

“The state of California implemented non-regulatory compliance levels at that time and had already installed treatment for PFAS prior to the EPA decision. [Environmental Protection Agency’s] maximum pollutant content.”

The spokesperson further said that “source control is the ultimate solution for PFAS” by “eliminating them from non-essential uses and from the industrial manufacturers that may use them.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said it began taking steps to protect drinking water in January last year with the introduction of maximum retention limits (MCLs).

A spokesperson told Newsweek: “Pennsylvania has preempted EPA's PFAS limits in protecting drinking water, joining a small group of states that have set legal limits for certain PFAS in drinking water. Pennsylvania's regulation was completed 15 months before EPA issued the final federal PFAS regulation for drinking water.”

“In addition, Pennsylvania is already working to revise its regulations to align with federal EPA legislation, where our state laws are less stringent. Federal law provides for phased implementation dates to give states time to do this work.

“After our regulation was published, DEP traveled throughout Pennsylvania conducting numerous trainings for water utilities. We have already educated 650 people in approximately 25 trainings across the state on the details of the new rule.”

Newsweek also contacted water regulators in New Jersey, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

David G. Miller, deputy director of water treatment and utilities for the city of Manchester, New Hampshire, told Newsweek that the new regulations are a “groundbreaking change” for the drinking water industry.

He said: “There are many sources of PFAS. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, high concentrations of PFAS were discovered in groundwater wells on and near the former Pease Air Force Base… likely from years of firefighting foam use.

“In Merrimack, New Hampshire, St. Gobain Performance Plastics was found to be the cause of local PFAS contamination of groundwater caused by atmospheric discharge from smokestacks. Many affected wells had to be abandoned and replaced with other water sources. These two examples alone affected many water users… and there are many, many more examples across the country.

“In five years, all water systems will be required to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's MCL for PFAS to protect public health. This will come at a significant cost that will be passed on to consumers.”

In April, President Joe Biden's administration and the EPA implemented national limits on PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water. These man-made chemicals that persist in the environment have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer.

Andrews went on to say that states where PFAS contamination has long been a problem will have a “head start in many ways” with the recent introduction of statewide legally enforceable limits, which water utilities have five years to comply with.

“The pollution was identified several years before this regulation was passed,” he said. “In many cases, the water systems at the sites with the highest pollution have already taken action or made agreements with some of the polluters to install filters in the next few years.”

Andrews cited Michigan as an example of success: It is “one of the states that has conducted the most comprehensive testing of water systems and subsequently launched a program to set water quality standards. This program required wastewater treatment plants to identify the sources of contamination” and essentially forced them to install filtration systems.

A spokesperson for the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team told Newsweek, “Michigan is already well ahead of many states on PFAS, setting its own drinking water standards – known as maximum contaminant levels – for seven PFAS compounds. This is a testament to the governor's accomplishment.” [Gretchen] Whitmer's commitment to ensuring all Michigan residents have access to clean, healthy drinking water.

“Michigan will continue to follow state regulations while working with drinking water systems across the state to prepare for these welcome new federal standards. Because of our head start, Michigan is confident we will be ready for these much-needed federal standards.”

Andrews urged people to check for test results for drinking water systems in their area.

“And if contaminants are found in a drinking water system,” he said, “people should consider using a home water filtration system. This is a very effective way to significantly reduce or eliminate those contaminants.”

“Even with the standards adopted earlier this spring, it will be many years before more water systems take action to reduce this pollution,” he added.

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Newsweek's goal is to challenge conventional wisdom and find connections while searching for common ground.

Newsweek's goal is to challenge conventional wisdom and find connections while searching for common ground.

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