One of the strongest sense memories from my childhood is the taste of the drinking water at my grandmother’s house in Wilmington, North Carolina: tap water that tasted coastal, slightly briny, and oceanic. We’d visit several times a year, each trip imprinting the sensory experience of living near the Atlantic Ocean. Coastal breezes, ever-present residues of sand, the smell of saltwater, and tap water that tasted like the beach.
It wasn’t until years later that I found out Wilmington’s tap water was contaminated by more than the occasional saltwater intrusion—it was also contaminated with PFAS.
PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and these “forever chemicals” are known for their ability to linger in the environment, accumulate in our bodies, and cause worrisome health impacts. They’ve been linked to decreased fertility, cancer, liver damage, thyroid problems, adverse birth outcomes, and more—and troublingly, children are especially vulnerable to all of these health impacts. Since at least the early 1980s, when my childhood visits to Wilmington started, a chemical plant owned by DuPont has been discharging PFAS chemicals into the Cape Fear River, which supplies drinking water for Wilmington and a large surrounding area.
PFAS can’t be tasted in water, but its health effects in the Cape Fear region have been profound. The Cape Fear region is far from alone—PFAS-contaminated water affects people all over the world. Recent research has found that PFAS has made rainwater unsafe for drinking around the globe, and here in the US, the Environmental Working Group has found that over 200 million Americans in more than 2,000 communities across the country are exposed to unsafe levels of PFAS in their drinking water.
The Environmental Protection Agency has taken note of the PFAS problem. Earlier this summer, EPA issued new health advisories for PFAS chemicals in drinking water, and in September, EPA proposed that two PFAS chemicals—PFOA and PFOS—be designated “hazardous” substances. Designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as CERCLA, would require more transparency for polluters and hold them accountable for cleaning up PFAS contamination.
After EPA’s new health advisories were released, I became curious about my own drinking water. My hometown of Durham, North Carolina, is on the northern edge of the Cape Fear River basin, and I’ve always had the profound privilege of assuming our water would be safe to drink (following the Jackson water crisis has been a humbling reminder that safe, accessible drinking water is never something to take for granted).
I looked at the City of Durham’s Water Management website and learned that the water my family drinks contains about 4 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOA and 6.3 ppt of PFOS—the two chemicals EPA has recently proposed to designate as hazardous to human health. These levels are lower than North Carolina’s state PFAS standards of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for the two chemicals, but significantly higher than EPA’s new advisory guidance. According to EPA, PFOA levels above 0.004 ppt and PFOS levels above 0.02 ppt may be unsafe.
Currently, there are no national standards for PFAS in drinking water, though EPA plans to propose a PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation in the fall of 2022. EPA’s website offers guidance for the public on reducing your exposure to PFAS in drinking water, including a suggestion to contact your local water utility to find out if—and how much—PFAS is in your local drinking water supply.
After learning about Durham’s PFAS levels, I’m planning to take additional steps to protect my family, like making sure to reduce our PFAS exposure from other consumer sources and using a filtration system that removes PFAS from our water. And although I feel profoundly grateful that we have access to water that is cleaner than the drinking water in much of the world, I’m going to be advocating for the strongest possible PFAS standards to protect our kids’ health. I hope you will too.