A PFAS contamination crisis in school drinking water has forced dozens of classrooms across the country to quietly switch to bottled water.
This week, two schools in Aroostook County, Maine will start the year with a ban on drinking fountains until at least the end of November, after tests showed the school’s drinking water supply was laced with substances. chemicals linked to cancer, infertility and other diseases.
In Cumberland County, North Carolina, several schools were forced to switch to exclusively bottled drinking water after PFAS chemicals were also detected in the water.
The area has been plagued by a series of cancer diagnoses, blood disorders and infant deaths, which locals fear are linked to a nearby chemical plant.
In total, drinking water from schools in at least six states was tested and consequently the use of tap and fountain water was prohibited. However, because water testing is not required by law, many children may be unknowingly exposed to chemicals, forcing some districts to Take matters into your own hands.
The problem affecting schools is of particular concern given the links between PFASs and developmental delays in children, as they have been linked to disruption of hormonal pathways crucial to human growth and development.
Some schools recently learned of the level of PFAS contamination in their drinking water, prompting officials to block off water sources and provide students with bottled water instead. Some schools have asked parents to send their children to school with bottled water as well.
PFAS are microscopic man-made chemicals found in food packaging, clothing, and thousands of household products in the US.
Because of their ubiquity, they leach into the soil, drinking water, air, and food. They have been considered “permanent chemicals” because they do not break down in the human body or damage DNA, increasing the risk of cancer, infertility, and other diseases.
States and individual school districts have put their own water monitoring systems in place to determine the extent of the problem in the absence of government action, and many have found that PFAS concentrations in water are alarmingly high.
Testing of water at Miscoe Hill High School in Mendon, Massachusetts from April to June 2022 showed that PFAS levels reached 24 nanograms/liter (ng/L)exceeding the state’s maximum contamination level of 20 ng/L.
Levels were even higher the following quarter. From July to September of that year, water levels exceeded 43 ng/L.
Testing by Energy and Environmental Affairs revealed that the school had elevated levels of PFAS, which exceeded state standards on more than 10 occasions. She had been buying gallons of bottled water for her students since at least 2022.
While dozens, if not hundreds, of schools have cordoned off water sources to distribute more reliable bottled water, the measure is a band-aid that covers the long-standing problem of overexposure to industrial chemicals with significant health risks.
PFAS contamination is a relatively new concern, with scientists only beginning to study the long-term effects of drinking contaminated water and breathing poisoned air over the past decade.
The problem affecting schools is of particular concern given the links between PFAS and developmental delays in children.
This is due to the damage that PFAS contamination poses to the hormonal and metabolic pathways necessary for human growth and development, according to a study published in February in the journal. Environmental Health Perspectives.
The two schools in northern Maine made headlines Tuesday when district officials announced students would be provided with bottled water instead of being able to use fountains and tap water after state-organized testing revealed PFAS levels. which reached 34 parts per billion, much higher than the 20 parts per billion safe level required by the state.
Those schools are the latest, but they are not the only ones to have taken similar steps. And they’re not the only Maine schools that have done this.
Students and staff at Hermon High School in Maine have been using exclusively bottled drinking water since February 2023 after water from taps and fountains tested above the state limit for PFAS.
In Westchester County, New York, a school has used a bottled water-only protocol since 2018. Meanwhile, the nearby Pequenakonck Elementary School was state mandated in 2021 Stop drinking tap and fountain water.
The state health department said at the time: ‘The advisories, issued out of an abundance of caution, direct school communities to stop using water for drinking, cooking and food preparation…following the recent discovery of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and the perfluorooctane. (PFOS) in school water systems at levels above New York’s recently adopted highly protective Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) of 10 parts per billion each.’
In Cumberland County, North Carolina, where a manufacturing plant has been leaking PFAS into the Cape Fear River for decades, Gray’s Creek and Alderman Road elementary schools have been using bottled water exclusively since 2020 after state testing.
The Mendon-Upton Regional School District, where Miscoe Hill School is located, received million-dollar grants from the state to install two new water treatment systems to filter out PFAS, a huge win for school officials and administrators.
Jay Byer, director of finance and operations for the school district saying: ‘We greatly appreciate the grants.
“We’ve only been able to use the water to flush toilets, we can’t use it for cooking…we’ve been buying 5-gallon bottles of WB Mason for quite some time.”
The cities represented on the map are just a few of the many that have been identified as having higher concentrations of PFAS in public water supplies and private wells. The information comes from the Environmental Working Group.
Cancer diagnoses in most cities designated by the Environmental Working Group as having high levels of PFAS in their water are above the national average rate of approximately 439 cases per 100,000 people.
State-issued water testing bills are a boon to local communities and schools, which often struggle to finance such projects. However, state support is not uniform across the country. Some counties and school boards have had to fill those gaps themselves.
The Wausau School Board in Wisconsin shut off water sources at 17 of its 20 schools after city tests found chemical contamination levels ranged from 23 to 48 parts per billion.
Limits proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources recommend concentrations not to exceed 20 parts per billion.
Once the extent of the contamination was revealed, schools told parents to send their children to class with bottled water as they could not rely on water sources as usual.
The problem was not solved until the beginning of this year when the school district informed parents that “your students can now use our water fountains” after a notice from the city’s public works department said that PFAS levels in water facilities “are not detectable.”
But just because the city’s water treatment facility showed only minor levels of chemicals, school officials acknowledged that it wouldn’t be enough to calm some concerned parents.
The school district’s message added: “As always, you are more than welcome to bring bottled water to school if you feel more comfortable doing so.”
Drinking water in schools comes from municipal water systems or from their own water systems, such as wells. In fact, around 8,000 schools and day care centers depend on their own water systems, which are not uniformly tested.
In many cases, the burden of testing private well water falls on the individual owner, although some state or local health or environmental departments may offer guidance on testing private wells.
Meanwhile, nearly 100,000 public schools and around half a million day care centers draw their water from local community water systems and are not required to perform any additional testing for contaminants such as PFAS.