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An 'alarming level' of PFAS found in some Florida drinking water, a scientist says

Chandler Balkcom

In Florida, the latest drinking water results show an “alarming level” of PFAS compounds at the Orangewood Water System in Holiday and in the city of Pembroke Pines.

Toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS are reported to have affected the drinking water of 26 million people in hundreds of U.S. communities.

PFAS is a term that stands for a large family of chemicals that have a unifying feature: a carbon-fluorine bond. It’s incredibly strong, which has led to some of its widespread use in everything from fast-food wrappers to the coatings on tools to electronics.

“There's actually been 1,000 different chemicals approved for industrial use in the United States that would be considered a PFAS chemical, but it's also the unique chemistry that enables these chemicals not to break down in the environment. That's why they've been called forever chemicals,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the nonprofit organization Environmental Working Group.

PFAS health effects

He said there is no safe level of exposure of PFAS for people due to health concerns.

“PFAS are unique in their ability to cause harm throughout the body. In part, this is because PFAS has a strong affinity to blood, and it can be distributed throughout our bodies,” Andrews said.

“Studies have shown strong links and high level of certainty that it causes harm to thyroids, increased cholesterol level, reduced birth weight as well as a number of types of cancer, including testicular and kidney cancer. And actually, recent studies have shown that at very low concentration … these chemicals are impacting the immune system and actually reducing the effectiveness of vaccines.”

Drinking water study

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency started requiring some utilities across the nation to test drinking water for 29 different PFAS compounds and plans to release quarterly findings over the next couple of years.

Initial data released Thursday from the study found PFAS levels above minimum reporting limits in 431 water systems of out of the approximately 2,000 tested across the country.

“These results are somewhat shocking that 26 million people have these chemicals in their drinking water. And yet, it follows expectations. I was actually an author on a paper three years ago that estimated up to 200 million Americans likely have PFAS contamination of their drinking water supplies. And these results from the EPA actually aligned with that study that we previously did,” said Andrews.

“This is really contamination occurring across states. There are places that do have higher levels of contamination if they've been impacted by manufacturing facilities, near firefighter training locations, downstream from electroplating facilities.”

Florida’s tap results

In Florida, he pointed out that the latest drinking water results show an “alarming level” of PFAS compounds at the Orangewood Water System in Holiday and in the city of Pembroke Pines.

To compare, the new EPA proposed limit for the chemical PFOA as well as for the chemical PFOS is 4 parts per trillion each, Andrews said.

But the Orangewood Water System had eight different PFAS compounds at 185.4 parts per trillion. And water coming out of Pembroke Pines had nine different PFAS compounds at 171.6 parts per trillion.

“The results that they've released to date indicate that the contamination is widespread, as expected. … I think they really highlight the need for immediate action, both in terms of increased regulation of these chemicals, but as well, toward more and more effort and focus on improving drinking water quality,” he said.

As for the Tampa area, Andrews said, it looks like PFAS contamination is coming out of MacDill Air Force Base.

EWG research found that the base in 2018 had a PFAS concentration in the environment of 523,710 parts per trillion, while the “safe” limit is considered 70 parts per trillion.

Studies show forever chemicals impact the health of wildlife similar to humans, according to Andrews, in terms of reduced effectiveness of vaccines, and impacts on reproduction and development.

Solutions to PFAS

Andrews would like to have immediate federal standards put in place and drinking water systems filtering these contaminants out, but he said that could take years.

Click here to view EWG’s interactive PFAS map, although it could take a day or two after the release of new information for updates to be reflected.

If your utility detects forever chemical contamination, Andrews strongly suggests using an at-home water filter.

“We actually have a water filter guide where and we have done tests of different filters on the market to see what which are the most effective,” Andrews said.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of All Things Consideredfor WGCU News.