Over 57,000 sites across US cities are “very likely” contaminated with toxic forever chemicals, according to a new study that calls for swift regulatory action to stop their use.
Forever chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, have commonly been used since the 1940s and are found in waterproof cosmetics, firefighting foams as well as grease and oil-resisting commercial products like nonstick cookware.
The new study, published on Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, put together publicly available data into a single map of 57,412 locations, with sites in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia.
Researchers, including those from Northeastern University in the US, said PFAS contamination can be presumed in some industrial facilities as well as locations where fluorinated firefighting foams have been used.
“PFAS contamination at these locations is very likely,” Alissa Cordner, senior author on the study, said in a statement.
“We know that PFAS testing is very sporadic, and there are many data gaps in identifying known sites of PFAS contamination. That’s why the ‘presumptive contamination’ model is a useful tool in the absence of existing high-quality data,” Dr Cordner said.
In the research, scientists also validated over 500 known contamination sites against those they identified, and found that over 70 per cent of these sites were either included in their map or captured by the model.
“PFAS testing is expensive and resource intensive. We have developed a standardized methodology that can help identify and prioritise locations for monitoring, regulation, and remediation,” Kimberly Garrett, a co-author of the study, said.
Of the sites identified in the study, 49,145 are industrial facilities, 4,255 are wastewater treatment plants, 3,493 are current or former military sites, and 519 are “major airports”.
While the study finds more than 57,000 likely contamination sites, scientists point out that this could well be an “underestimate”.
“The scope of PFAS contamination is immense, and communities impacted by this contamination deserve swift regulatory action that stops ongoing and future uses of PFAS while cleaning up already existing contamination,” Phil Brown, another author of the study, said.
“While it sounds scary that there are over 57,000 presumptive contamination sites, this is almost certainly a large underestimation,” Dr Brown added.
Studies have shown that these chemicals are extremely persistent, and linked them to several health complications, including developmental effects in children, reduced immunity and hormone disruption.
They have also been detected in countless drinking water systems, in the bodies of humans and wildlife, and even in rainwater at toxic levels.