Federal study finds nearly half of US tap water contains PFAS
It’s a groundbreaking study into the presence of PFAS in tap water and private wells.
“We actually focused on your glass that you drink, coming from your kitchen faucet, which is unique,” says Kelly Smalling, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “This is the first study to really give private users information on PFAS at their tap and then compare that information to those on public supply.”
The USGS study found at least 45% of the nation’s tap water contains what are often called forever chemicals.
A map released by the agency shows circles representing the presence of one or more PFAS; parts of Minnesota are among the areas affected the most.
Smalling notes there are more than 12,000 types of PFAS.
She says researchers tested for the presence of 32, including in the metro.
“Minneapolis is an urban area. It also has PFAS manufacturing in the area,” Smalling explains. “We know that people in urban areas and places near known or suspected PFAS sources tend to have higher concentrations and more PFAS detected in their taps.”
The study’s findings are no surprise to Lake Elmo City Council Member Jeff Holtz.
“We have PFAS in our groundwater, and this is going to be a centuries-long issue to deal with,” he declares. “I don’t know if I’d use the word concerned. I think the right word is to remain vigilant.”
Holtz is also a member of the public work group for the 3M settlement.
The group monitors at least part of the $850 million settlement reached after the attorney general sued, saying PFAS had damaged drinking water and natural resources in the metro.
Holtz says because of Minnesota’s experience in dealing with PFAS, it’s ahead of other states.
“We have processes in place to ensure that testing is occurring whether it’s your city wells that are tested every quarter, regardless of your location,” he notes. “The thing we have going for us is the testing capacity, the industry and the skills within hundreds and hundreds of people whether it’s within our state agencies or our local level of entities.”
The Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency say they’ve been monitoring PFAS levels for 20 years using state guidelines.
The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a requirement that water utilities detect and reduce PFAS contamination to 4 parts per trillion, the lowest measurable level.
Under an EPA plan, if a water system identifies higher levels of synthetic chemicals, it would be required to notify residents and take action to bring those levels down.
Holtz says infrastructure to deal with PFAS will be an issue as well.
“Industry is not prepared yet,” he says. “Lake Elmo is trying to get a temporary filter, similar to what Cottage Grove and Woodbury have— and it’s going to take months. We recently had a well test positive for PFAS. But we are testing, we test quarterly. That’s part of the Minnesota regulatory framework.”
3M recently reached an even larger $10.3 billion settlement with U.S. cities over their claims it contaminated drinking water.
In a statement, the company says it will continue remediation and stop PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025.
“We have and will continue to deliver on our commitments, including remediating PFAS, investing in water treatment, and collaborating with communities,” the statement said. “PFAS are critical in the manufacture of many products that are important for modern life, including medical technologies, semiconductors, batteries, phones, automobiles, and airplanes. 3M’s products are safe and effective for their intended uses.”
Experts have linked forever chemicals to several types of cancer, kidney disease, and infertility.
What can people do to cut down on exposure?
The Minnesota Department of Health says filters that use reverse osmosis or activated carbon can be effective.
But run-of-the-mill water filters won’t cut it.
Smalling says she hopes the USGS research will help.
“The big important piece of this study is that it gave private well users some information that they didn’t have,” she notes. “And also opening that conversation for folks to really understand what these risks mean to them.”
You can find out more about PFAS and home treatment of water on MDH’s website.