These are the cities and counties with the highest levels of toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water — after manufacturing giant 3M agreed to settle a series of landmark lawsuits alleging it contributed to the problem.
Per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals that have been manufactured since the 1940s and can be found in foam used by firefighters, cookware, carpets, textiles and even children’s toys.
3M manufactured the chemicals in several common items, such as plastic water bottles and tape.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits PFAS to 0.004 parts per trillion (ppt) for drinking water, a small amount because of their link to cancer, infertility, obesity and autism.
Yet a 2020 report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that some cities and counties in the United States have thousands of times more PFAS in their drinking water. Brunswick County, in North Carolina, led the list with 185.9 ppt, followed by Quad Cities, Iowa, and Miami, Florida.
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2020 Environmental Working Group (EWG) data ranked Brunswick County, North Carolina as the top region in the U.S. with PFAS in drinking water
PFAS are called ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not break down after they enter the environment.
The EPA has called PFAS an “urgent public health and environmental problem.”
In 2020, EWG released data ranking the cities and counties with the highest levels of PFAS in tap water. The metric measures the prevalence of the particle in a smear.
According to 2017 data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is the leading cause of death in North Carolina. PFAS has long been associated with an increased risk of several cancers, including kidney and testicular cancer.
Brunswick County is closely followed by Quad Cities, a region of five cities in Iowa and Illinois.
The data also includes city-level rates.
Top cities listed are Miami, Wilmington, North Carolina, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Charleston, South Carolina.
PFAS contamination is commonly detected in water near manufacturing facilities, as well as military bases and firefighting training facilities where flame retardant foam is used.
For example, 3M has been using the chemicals in firefighting foam since the 1960s.
A 2014 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study said firefighters are nine percent more likely to get cancer than the general U.S. population and 14 percent more likely to die from cancer.
Last June, the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that the profession of firefighter itself is ‘carcinogenic to humans’.
EWG has released a database that tracks exposure to PFAS in drinking water, military sites, and other locations
PFAS is commonly found in tap water in the United States, as well as in household products such as cookware, carpets, textiles, and children’s toys
Studies suggest that more than 97 percent of Americans have PFAS chemicals in their blood.
A report that appeared earlier this month in the Annals of Global Health found that 3M and the chemical manufacturer DuPont were first warned about the health risks of forever chemicals in 1961, but didn’t raise the alarm until the 1990s.
These risks include liver enlargement, poisonings, and childhood birth defects, as well as many others.
For example, a government-funded study published this month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that children exposed to high levels of PFAS in the womb were more likely to be overweight or obese.
This builds on previous research that has suggested that PFAS contributes to weight gain by disrupting hormone regulation.
Additionally, a 2021 study of the University of Texas found that children exposed to PFAS in the womb were more likely to develop autism.
3M has said that “PFAS are made safe and used in many modern products” and that their decision to end production of the chemicals by the end of 2025 is due to stricter regulations regarding their presence in the environment.
Last month, Minnesota, which was not on the EWG list, announced plans to ban the chemicals from everyday household products by 2025.