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We turn on a water tap in our homes with the expectation that the water that flows will be free of contaminants. The Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 established standards for all municipal water supplies in the U.S. Water from private wells is not covered by the measure. The Environmental Protection Agency works with state and local authorities and water suppliers to assure that standards are met. The Act has been amended multiple times, most recently in 2018.

Well-publicized contamination with lead of Flint, Michigan's, water supply revealed gaps in the enforcement of clean water standards. This ongoing tragedy has been supplanted by other news events. Environmental concerns do not rank highly in national reporting or politics.

A widely used group of chemicals, largely unpublicized, exposes millions of Americans to a range of dangers to their health. The U.S. government is not pursuing regulation of these toxins in a timely manner.

The chemicals in question are per- and polyfluoronated substances (PFAS). They have been used since the 1950s in a variety of products including non-stick cookware, fire-fighting foams, water-resistant clothing, stain-resistant fabrics such as carpets and upholstery. Some paints, polishes, and cleaning products contain PFAS. They are used in some food-packing materials and cosmetics. PFAS may not appear in the list of a product's contents.

The EPA has mandated measurement of PFAS in water supplies since 2013.

PFAS have been linked in laboratory and epidemiologic studies to a variety of health problems, which include increased risk of malignancies, altered immune function, growth retardation, reduced fertility of females, and disruption of normal hormonal function.

Since PFAS do not break down in soil or water, they are "forever" contaminants in the environment. Once in the food chain, PFAS persist and may accumulate gradually. Up to 110 million Americans have measurable amounts of PFAS in their blood. The significance of this is unclear. Our intake of PFAS can come from contaminated water supplies, particularly those around military bases and industrial plants that either manufacture or utilize the chemicals. Fish, livestock, and poultry are contaminated when exposed to PFAS in their food and water supplies. We, in turn, consume this meat in our diets.

Two commonly used PFAS are being phased out, while newer ones are introduced. The safety of the newer products has not been established.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that engages in environmental research, provides the most readily available information on PFAS pollution. A map at the site shows PFAS contamination across the nation. More than 700 sites have been identified in 43 states. These are categorized as military, drinking water and "other." Michigan (192), New Jersey (47), and California (43) contain the most sites. Eight sites are located in Tennessee. A cluster of sites of contamination of drinking water are located in Northwest Georgia and across Northern Alabama

The working group also provides a tap water data base that combines measurements from national and state agencies to provide information on safety of drinking water for every ZIP code in the U.S.

Regulations to phase out use of PFAS have been delayed because of opposition from the Department of Defense and the Small Business Administration.

Removal of PFAS and other potentially toxic chemicals from household drinking water is feasible but expensive. Carbon filtration devices for the tap used for drinking water cost from $200 to $400 and require periodic replacement of carbon cartridges. A reverse osmosis device is more costly and wastes water.

The only solution is aggressive action by federal and state environmental agencies to identify and to ban promptly the production and dissemination into our water and food chain of harmful chemicals such as PFAS. Delays by lobbyists, anti-regulation politicians, and special interest groups allow continued buildup of these chemicals in our environment. The public's health ultimately suffers.

some text Dr. Cliff Cleaveland poses for a photograph in the Times Free Press studio on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at ccleaveland@epbfi.com.

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