Researchers at WVU identify multiple hotspots of ‘forever chemicals’ contamination in the U.S.

There are harmful chemicals in water systems across the country that do not break down. West Virginia University Economists found that areas with high populations, income levels and groundwater use tend to be the most contaminated.

Levan Elbakidze and Nabin Khanal (a doctoral student in Nabin Khanal’s division for Land-Grant Engagement at WVU Davis) identified four areas of “forever chemicals” contamination in the east of the United States.

Correlating these data to socioeconomic attributes such as housing density, income, and the raw water intake source, they found that highly populated communities, with higher incomes, with industries such as manufacturing, health care and aviation, show alarming levels. The levels of contamination were lower in areas with a non-white population, those with a lower income and those that had largely agricultural land. Communities that rely on aquifers for drinking water were more likely than those who rely on rivers and reservoirs to be contaminated.

Researchers also stated that mitigating contaminants will require both industrial emissions as well as consumer products.

There are over 14,000 types of PFAS. These chemicals are found in many products, and they can cause serious health issues like cancer, heart disease and infertility. PFAS were originally developed in the 1940s for the Manhattan Project. They are now used widely in industrial processes because of their resistance to heat, water, stains, and grease.

Elbakidze explained that the chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they do not biodegrade once made.

The hotspots identified span across 10 states and 149 county. The area with the most counties is Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. The second hot spot spans New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well as New York, Delaware, Connecticut, and Delaware. The third-largest hot spot is located on the border between North Carolina and South Carolina.

According to Elbakidze, “The regional hotspots have PFAS-using industrial sites, PFAS-manufacturing plants and/or densely populated areas. The Colorado hotspot includes counties that include the U.S. Space Command and Air Force Bases and Air Force Academies that use PFAS in their operations.”

Even small amounts of PFAS can cause harm. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will significantly lower the levels of PFAS in drinking water by 2022. Around 270,000,000 Americans drink water that is contaminated by these chemicals.

The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates water contaminants such as E. coli but not PFAS. Elbakidze explained that the sources of PFAS are not fully understood, and it is difficult to prevent future hotspots. EPA can’t enforce monitoring of public water systems but does collect data about PFAS levels in water.

Elbakidze: “If we had some data, we could see where the concentration was.” Where does this occur? What are the U.S. states with concentrations of this kind? What are the factors involved?

Elbakidze, Khanal and their team collected data from both the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the U.S. Census Bureau in order to better understand spatial distribution of contaminants. Historically, the focus of testing was on areas close to PFAS manufacturing facilities, aviation and defense facilities. The WVU study shows that contamination can also come from everyday consumer goods, and affect communities far away from industrial sites.

Khanal stated that “given the diversity of sources of contamination, any system – whether it is a public system or a well – could be affected.” It is therefore important to test for PFAS in your water and to take the necessary steps to avoid drinking or preparing food with contaminated water.

We wear clothing that is water resistant. That’s PFAS. If you live in a densely-populated area, these substances are consumed at higher levels. PFAS is washed into sewers. The wastewater treatment plants do not have the technology to remove PFAS from wastewater before it is released. Drinking water systems, which also lack the necessary technology, and that draw water from contaminated sources, end up delivering treated water containing PFAS .”

The researchers believed that underground aquifers had fewer contaminants, because groundwater filters to a certain degree as it percolates.

Elbakidze stated that “Most of the pollutants covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act tend to be more prevalent in systems that draw water from the surface.” But that’s not true with PFAS. The groundwater is more polluted because the chemicals do not biodegrade and are not destroyed. They stay in the water for a long time.

The next step for the researchers will be to investigate and quantify the financial burden PFAS contamination imposes upon society. This will help to inform better policies and management practices.




The Director

WVU Research Communications

304-293-5507; [email protected]

To get the latest West Virginia University information and news, call 1-855 WVU-NEWS. .