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CR and Mississippi Spotlight find concerning levels of toxic PFAS in state’s drinking water and measurable levels of lead and arsenic

Consumer Reports calls on EPA to finalize proposed drinking water limits on PFAS and urges Governor Reeves to provide residents with water filters to avoid exposure 

A joint investigation by Consumer Reports and Mississippi Spotlight of Mississippi’s drinking water found widespread contamination with PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances also known as ‘forever chemicals’), including a significant number of samples that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory for the chemicals. The investigation also found detectable levels of lead and arsenic in all of the samples tested. Mississippi’s drinking water test results are consistent with what CR found across the country in 2020.

CR is calling on the EPA to finalize its proposed limits on PFAS in drinking water and urging Governor Reeves to have the state test its water for PFAS and provide residents with water filters that can remove the forever chemicals and other contaminants. At the same time, CR is offering advice to consumers about water filters that are certified by third party testers to remove PFAS.

“Mississippi faces a serious challenge to ensure everyone has access to clean, safe drinking water,” said James E. Rogers, PhD, head of product safety testing at Consumer Reports. “Far too many state residents are exposed to PFAS in their drinking water at levels that the EPA considers unsafe. The EPA should move swiftly to adopt strong limits on toxic forever chemicals. Governor Reeves should ensure that the state’s water is tested for PFAS and provide Mississippians with the water filters they need to protect their families until those federal limits are in place.”

PFAS are used to make products stain- water- and grease-resistant and can get into water during manufacturing or when they degrade in landfills. In March, the EPA proposed its first-ever enforceable drinking water limits on PFAS, which have been linked to cancer, birth defects, kidney disease, liver problems, decreased immunity, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid issues.

“PFAS are resistant to breaking down naturally in the environment and can remain in people’s bodies for years,” said Dr. Glake Hill, PhD, professor of chemistry at Jackson State University. “These forever chemicals pose a serious threat because they can lead to a whole host of chronic health problems at even low levels of exposure.”

The EPA’s proposed rule would require public water systems to monitor and strictly limit six of the chemicals, including two of the most closely studied – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS). EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan estimates that adopting the proposed drinking water standard has the potential to “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses.”

“Our investigation found that PFAS is a silent threat in the drinking water that Mississippians rely on every day,” said Jerry Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting for Mississippi Today, who heads up Mississippi Spotlight. “PFAS are pervasive in Mississippi, but most people are in the dark about these forever chemicals because the state doesn’t test for them.”

Consumer Reports and Mississippi Spotlight set out to test tap water in Mississippi and determine the levels of PFAS, arsenic, and lead from 149 municipal and well water system’s in the state’s 82 counties and compared those levels to regulatory and health based limits, to assess the potential health risks for consumers. Almost all of the samples – 98 percent – revealed some level of PFAS from the volunteers’ tap and well water.

Concerning Levels of PFAS Found in a Significant Number of Samples

Of the 149 drinking water samples that were tested, CR found:

  • 146 contained measurable levels of PFAS. Nearly a third of them exceeded EPA’s health advisory for PFOA in drinking water, and almost half exceeded the health advisory for PFOS.
  • 23 percent of counties in Mississippi had total PFAS levels above CR’s recommended maximum of 10 parts per trillion (ppt). The International Bottled Water Association follows the same 10 ppt limit for total PFAS
  • The top ten counties with the highest detected levels of PFAS were Alcorn County (93 ppt), Carroll County (52 ppt), Lamar County (47 ppt), Harrison County (46 ppt), Forrest County (44 ppt), Holmes County (43 ppt), Hancock County (21 ppt), Hinds County(19 ppt), Union County (17 ppt), and Pike County (17 ppt)

“Mississippi families shouldn’t have to worry that the water they’re drinking from their tap at home could make them sick,” said Crystal Dotson, a Corinth resident whose water had a “total PFAS” level of 92.5 ppt. “The state and federal government must take action to protect us from these dangerous toxic chemicals.”

Every water sample tested had measurable levels of arsenic

In addition, every sample Consumer Reports tested had measurable levels of arsenic, including samples from two counties with levels above 3 parts per billion (ppb): Green County (3.7ppb) and Pike County  (3.6 ppb). The current EPA limit for arsenic is 10 ppb, even though the EPA had previously considered a 3 ppb limit as feasible. CR scientists and other health experts have long called on the EPA to lower the limit to 3 ppb. Arsenic can enter water through natural deposits or industrial or agricultural pollution. Exposure to arsenic has been linked to lowered IQ in children and cancer.

Lead was detected in nearly every water sample tested

All of the samples tested had detectable levels of lead, which can contaminate water when it leaches from lead service lines and lead pipes in people’s homes. Scientists and the EPA agree that exposure to lead is unsafe at any level. It has been tied to reduced IQ and slowed growth in children, high blood pressure, and reproductive problems. Lead levels were mostly in line with current EPA standards, with the exception of one sample from a private well in Carroll County, which exceeded the EPA’s action level for lead by 22 percent.

“Black communities across the country continue to suffer the impacts of disinvestment in water infrastructure,” said Abre Conner, director of the center for environmental and climate justice at the NAACP. “This is evident in issues like PFAS, where some of the highest levels of contamination are found in several counties with predominantly Black communities. Let’s be clear – this is not an anomaly, but factual evidence that depicts a reality many Black communities are forced to face.

Abre continued, “We must continue to examine PFAS levels, water testing, and look to creating better infrastructure as environmental justice issues that center communities most likely to be left out of the solution. Water issues in Black communities are nothing new, but can tell a different story with the EPA which has vowed to center environmental justice in its actions.”

Michael McCauley: michael.mccauley@consumer.org