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EPA releases data on PFAS, lithium in drinking water

First of 12 sets offers glimpse of contamination across the US

by Britt E. Erickson
August 24, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 28


A person filling a glass with water from the kitchen tap
Credit: Shutterstock
The amount of drinking water in the US contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances is likely underreported, environmental groups say.

Hundreds of water systems in the US are contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), initial data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency show. The data are the first of 12 sets the EPA plans to collect through 2025, under a rule that requires public water utilities to test for 29 PFAS and lithium in drinking water.

The first set, released Aug. 17, represents about 7% of the data the EPA expects to obtain over 3 years.

Environmental groups say the data underestimate the true scope of PFAS contamination because utilities are required to monitor only 29 of the thousands of PFAS in the marketplace, and they do not need to report PFAS detected below the EPA’s reporting limits. “Our concern remains that these testing results significantly underreport the presence of PFAS in tap water, potentially misleading communities about the safety of their drinking water,” Katie Pelch, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says in a statement.

The NRDC points out that a recent report by the US Geological Survey found a higher percentage of water systems contaminated with PFAS. The geological survey monitored more PFAS and reported lower levels than the EPA requires.

The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, regularly updates an interactive map showing thousands of public and private water systems across the US with PFAS contamination. The group uses data from government sources, official records, and tests of public water systems. “The new testing data shows that escaping PFAS is nearly impossible,” Scott Faber, the group’s senior vice president for government affairs, says in a statement.

The EPA’s initial PFAS data did not surprise environmental groups, but the lithium results did. Nearly a quarter of all water systems reported lithium levels that exceed the value that may pose a health risk. Lithium can occur naturally, but contamination also comes from commercial uses, such as lithium-ion batteries.



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