If you’ve been reading the headlines and are suddenly terrified by the “toxic soup” of “forever chemicals” in the water you’ve been drinking your whole life, it’s time to stop, relax and look up the source. Maybe even grab yourself a glass of water. It’s not going to poison you.
The terrifying new report comes from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a government ‘watchdog’ with a penchant for hyperbole – so much so, that critics refer to them as the Environmental “Worry” Group.
Over the years, EWG has encouraged anti-vaccine hysteria and myths around autism, exploited the public’s fear of weedkiller, pesticides and pretty much all synthetic compounds, and spurred on the anti-GMO movement.
Now, it wants you to think chemicals that could increase cancer risk – known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – have contaminated practically all major water supplies in the US, despite government officials saying everything is fine.
Collecting tap water samples from 44 sites in 32 states and territories, the group says an independent research team found only one location free from any detectable PFAS in the entire US.
In no less than 34 locations, EWG says they detected contamination not reported by the EPA or state environmental agencies; however, these results are not peer-reviewed and the group is looking for chemicals at such low levels, it’s unclear if there would be any impact on human health at all.
Nevertheless, widespread media reports have once again elevated the fear-mongering of EWG.
“It’s nearly impossible to avoid contaminated drinking water from these chemicals,” David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG, told The Guardian.
In 2001, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first heard about the risks that PFAS might pose to the environment and public health.
These long-living chemicals were being used to make products like Teflon, Scotchgard and various foams, but some research on animals suggested that at certain levels, the compounds might increase risk of cancer, or cause immune, liver and thyroid issues.
The presence of PFAS in our environment is something we need to pay close attention to. The US Centres for Disease Control and Infection has found that the blood of nearly all Americans might be contaminated with PFAS, indicating widespread exposure – but officials say more research is needed to assess the human health impacts of this exposure.
The EPA kindly suggests we stick to a safety threshold of 70 parts per trillion, but they don’t enforce those rules or require companies and agencies to publicise these levels.
Last year, the EPA missed its self-imposed deadline and failed to decide whether to regulate PFAS. When the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would force the agency to do so, the Trump administration threatened to veto.
Calling for more research is one thing; demanding the government figure out and enforce safe levels of these chemicals is another. What the Environmental Working Group is doing – selling guides to avoid PFAS, lowering safety thresholds to the point of mere detection, advising people how to treat their water when there might not be any risk even present – that’s something else entirely.