On January 22, 2020, the Environmental Working Group, “EWG”, a U.S. activist organization, released a report contending that PFAS contamination of tap water is far more prevalent than previously reported. The EWG report was picked up by the national press and widely reported with headlines raising the alarm regarding the levels of PFAS in drinking water supplies in major U.S. cities. However, a review of the actual data collected is far less alarming. U.S. EPA has set a Health Advisory Level (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion (“ppt”) for PFOA and PFAS, the two PFAS compounds that have been most widely studied for health effects. Some states are considering lower drinking water standards or state specific health advisory levels in the 10 to 15 ppt range. For example, New Jersey has proposed drinking water standards of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA. Focusing on just the PFOS and PFOA results from the EWG sampling, none exceeded the EPA HAL, and only three exceeded 10 ppt (Bergen County, NJ, PFOA at 14 ppt; Brunswick County, NC, PFOS at 14 ppt; and Miami, FL, PFOS at 12 ppt.) The vast majority of the results for PFOA and PFOS were below 5 ppt and many were below 1 ppt. The EWG report reached its conclusion that “the number of Americans exposed to PFAS from contaminated tap water has been dramatically underestimated” by aggregating the results for a combination of 30 PFAS substances and comparing the aggregated results to a EWS-proposed standard of 1 ppt for all PFAS combined.

The EWG report listed Philadelphia as one of the top 10 cities with tap water contaminated by PFAS and suggested that the Philadelphia Water Department (“PWD”) had not been forthcoming about PFAS test data. The PWD took issue with both of these statements. A review of the specific data for Philadelphia indicates that the PFOA (7.7 ppt) and PFOS (5.3 ppt) levels found by EWG were substantially below EPA’s HAL and below the drinking water standards under consideration by some states. Without clear standards from EPA or the states on the acceptable levels of PFAS in drinking water, the ongoing collection of PFAS data by organizations, states, and public water systems is likely to generate confusion and possibly concern and might increase the pressure on agencies to act.

The EWG report can be found here: EWG Report

The response from the Philadelphia Water Department to the EWG report can be found here: PWD Challenges EWG Conclusions

A map compiled by EWG with PFAS sampling results can be found here: EWG Map