7.5 Million Californians Affected by Toxic Chemicals in Drinking Water

A man fills up a water container at a machine in Chula Vista, CA. Image: Adriana Heldiz


A recent study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that 74 community water systems in California, which serve 7.5 million people, were contaminated with toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS between 2013 and 2019. According to EWG, “very low doses of PFAS chemicals in drinking water have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, liver and thyroid disease, and other health problems. All of the detections in California water systems’ sources exceeded 1 part per trillion, or ppt, the safe level recommended by the best independent studies and endorsed by EWG.”

How Can This Be?

The EPA currently does not have a federal standard for safe levels of PFAS in drinking water supplies. Instead, the agency has a mere lifetime health advisory level for the two most notorious fluorinated chemicals, PFOA and PFOS which environmental groups have said is wholly inadequate in ensuring drinking water isn’t contaminated. Additionally, the state of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment hasn’t yet set safety guidelines for PFAS in drinking water either, though it’s working on them.

What Are Residents To Do?

  • Many communities have been turning to private water vendors (you know, like those giant jugs you can fill up at the grocery store) and in California, water sales are big business.
  • For instance, vendors buy water from the City of San Diego (that’s treated already) for about $4,000 and sell it for $70,000 a year per kiosk after they’ve treated it further.
  • Additionally, these vendors aren’t closely regulated, in San Diego last year, just two kiosks were inspected for safety. It’s also unclear what the levels of PFAS are at these kiosks.

Why This Matters: The chemical companies that have made these chemicals for use in their products (like DuPont and 3M) largely pass along the cleanup costs of water sources onto municipalities and taxpayers. Our regulatory system hasn’t grappled with how to comprehensively address PFAS and new information about these chemicals’ health risks and breadth of contamination comes out each year. So far, President Trump has rejected use restrictions for PFAS so it’s unlikely his EPA will take action to protect the public anytime soon.

Go Deeper: PFAS contamination has been found in over 700 locations across the United States, including military bases, airports and industrial sites nationwide.

Go Even Deeper: Other states, like Ohio, are now mandating testing for PFAS.

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