What’s in the water? Nearly half of US drinking water is estimated to contain ‘forever chemicals’

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A major study from the U.S. Geological Survey released this summer found nearly half of U.S. drinking water is estimated to contain substances known as “PFAS.”

These are chemicals found in everyday items such as non-stick cookware, fire-fighting foams, and water-resistant fabrics. They take a long time to break down, hence their nickname “forever chemicals.”

Studies suggest they may lead to increased cholesterol levels, lowered infant birth weights, and increased risk of certain cancers.

The USGS study did not detect PFAS in any of the tap water samples taken from Northeast Florida.

JEA told News4JAX Jacksonville’s water source is naturally protected from potential contaminants, but a Unversity of North Florida professor said you still might have cause for concern when it comes to these forever chemicals and your drinking water.

“It’s a trade-off,” assistant chemistry professor Brynna Jones said.

She said these man-made chemicals can be useful in many ways.

“It enables planes to take off and land much more safely,” Jones said. “It enables flame retardants.”

PFAS are everywhere -- in clothing, food wrappers, and even in the bloodstreams of most people in the U.S. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about PFAS.

“Do we want to be able to have this convenience with some unknowns as to what will happen in 10 years?” Jones asked.

PFAS have been used in industry and consumer products since the ‘40s. Their strong chemical bonds mean they don’t degrade easily, so they continue to accumulate -- in our air, water, soil, and bodies.

“They’ve been linked with human developmental, metabolic and immune disorders,” Jones said.

They’ve also been linked with kidney and testicular cancers, so it was concerning when a major study from the U.S. Geological Survey estimated PFAS are present in about 45% of American drinking water.

“I think it’s very important that we know this so that we can take action,” Jones said.

At JEA, the lab downtown is already preparing, ordering a $500,000 machine to comply with proposed new federal rules requiring drinking water to be tested for PFAS.

“It actually just got here less than a month ago,” said Kevin Holbrooks, JEA’s director of environmental compliance. “We actually have training coming up at the end of this month.”

Holbrooks said the city-owned utility does about 200,000 analyses a year.

“Approximately 40,000 of those are on drinking water,” Holbrooks said as he showed News4JAX around JEA’s busy Main Street lab.

JEA tests for a variety of potential contaminants, including pesticides, mercury and bacteria.

Holbrooks said PFAS have never been found in JEA’s water, and he doesn’t expect them to be.

“This all starts with your water source, and here in Jacksonville, in Northeast Florida, we’re fortunate that we get our water from the deep aquifer,” he said.

JEA sources drinking water from more than 100 wells at least 800 feet below the surface.

“The water down there is pristine,” Holbrooks said.

He said a layer of impenetrable clay over the aquifer also serves as a natural filter.

UNF professor Jones said that’s encouraging, but she urges people to look at the study as a whole.

“It’s really the set in the aggregate that gives you the best information, not any individual data points,” she said

For the study, 716 samples from across the country were taken, and just a few of those were in Northeast Florida.

“They found that if you’re in an urban area, there’s about a 75% chance that you’ll have PFAS in your water, and by having PFAS, that means at least one substance detected,” she said. “And if you’re in a rural area, there’s about a 25% that’s the case.”

She said if you’re really concerned about PFAS in your drinking water, the best thing you can do to take action is get an activated carbon filter. They range in price, but there is one that’s just $25. The Environmental Working Group tested several filters for PFAS removal. You can view their findings here.

JEA customers can reach out to the utility at 904-665-6000 or via email at WaterQuality@jea.com to request a free water quality test if they have concerns about water quality.

They also can view JEA’s 2022 Water Quality report here.

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