High Levels Of 'Forever Chemicals' Detected In Northern Virginia Drinking Water Northern Virginia had PFAS levels three times higher than earlier testing found in D.C. and Maryland, according to testing by one environmental group.
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High Levels Of 'Forever Chemicals' Detected In Northern Virginia Drinking Water

A view of the Occoquan Reservoir, one of the sources of drinking water in Fairfax County. Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr hide caption

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Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr

They're known as "forever chemicals," because they linger in the environment and our bodies ... forever.

And new testing by the Environmental Working Group found the cancer-causing chemicals to be present in drinking water in Northern Virginia at higher levels than elsewhere in the D.C. region — and among the highest in the United States.

The chemicals, known as PFAS (short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), have been used in all sorts of products — from carpet to firefighting foam — since the 1940s. In many uses, the chemicals help make materials water repellent or stain repellent. But PFAS chemicals can cause myriad health problems in humans, including increased cholesterol levels, thyroid problems, cancer, and low infant birth weights, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The D.C.-based Environmental Working Group tested tap water at 19 locations in Northern Virginia, including Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax County, Loudoun County, and Prince William County.

"The samples come directly from taps across the Northern Virginia area," says Sidney Evans, a science analyst with the group who worked on the testing project. Samples were taken at public parks, gas stations, private residences and elsewhere.

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The results showed the chemicals were present at levels ranging from 5.5 parts per trillion, or ppt, at one site in Fairfax County to 62.4 parts per trillion at a site in Prince William County.

The levels found in some Northern Virginia locations are significantly higher than what the Environmental Working Group found in a round of national testing released a year ago. In that report, PFAS were found in D.C. at 21.7 ppt and in Prince Georges County, Maryland. at 17.8 ppt.

The group had planned to do further testing around the country, but that wasn't possible because of the pandemic and associated travel restrictions. So, staff at the nonprofit group decided to do some more testing close to home.

"It's really quite shocking to be the one doing this testing and get these kinds of test results back," says Evans. "I live in the Northern Virginia area, so while this issue was always important to me, it's personal now."

The EPA does not actually regulate PFAS chemicals, so there is no upper legal limit. However the EPA does have a non-enforceable health-advisory recommending PFAS levels below 70 ppt. The PFAS levels found in Northern Virginia are within the range that the EPA considers safe.

But the EPA's level is far too high, according to environmental activists. The Environmental Working Group is advocating for setting a level of 1 ppt. The Natural Resources Defense Council has suggested a level of between 2 and 7 ppt.

There are thousands of different PFAS chemicals — some are still in production, while others that have been phased out.

A spokesperson for Fairfax Water declined an interview. In an email, she noted that the water utility has conducted its own testing, and did not find any PFAS. However, in testing by Fairfax Water, only six PFAS chemicals were targeted, while the Environmental Working Group tested for 30 chemicals.

As for why Northern Virginia PFAS levels appear to be higher than elsewhere in the region, Evans says it may be due to using a different the source of drinking water. Most drinking water in the D.C. region comes from the Potomac River, but in parts of Northern Virginia tap water also comes from the Occoquan Reservoir. Testings sites closer to the reservoir had higher PFAS numbers.

A map showing where sampling was conducted. Courtesy of Environmental Working Group/ hide caption

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Courtesy of Environmental Working Group/

Evans says the findings point to the need for more testing and federal regulation of forever chemicals. In the meantime, she says residents concerned about PFAS can use a household water filter to remove the chemicals. Reverse osmosis filters are the most effective, followed by activated carbon filters.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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