January 14, 2009. In its final days, the Bush administration appears poised to issue an emergency health advisory for tap water polluted with the toxic Teflon chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) effectively allowing a significant level of pollution and discouraging cleanup of PFOA contamination in tap water in at least 9 states.

The level of permissible PFOA contamination under the administration’s guidance would be 10 times higher than that allowed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, whose commissioner, Lisa Jackson has been tapped by incoming President Obama to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If the Bush administration advisory is allowed to stand, it could result in blood levels of PFOA in people nearly 10 times higher than the current average amounts.

The millions of Americans who drink PFOA-contaminated water include residents of Washington, D.C., according to new tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG’s tests are the first to find PFOA contamination in the city’s tap water.

An internal EPA document obtained by West Virginia journalist Ken Ward, Jr. and published today on the Charleston Gazette website shows that EPA intends to defend its relatively weak Provisional Health Advisory as sufficient to protect people from harmful short-term exposures to PFOA. However, people who drink PFOA-contaminated tap water are exposed to this chemical day after day, year after year, and studies of communities with contaminated tap water show the chemical concentrates in human blood to levels 100 times higher than found in the water they drink. The proposed standard ignores this fact. The practical effect of this first-ever federal safety level would be to sanction long-term exposures at unsafe levels under the guise of a short term advisory.

EWG calls on EPA to develop a drinking water standard for PFOA that protects human health over a lifetime, including exposures in the womb and early childhood, when the body is extremely vulnerable to toxic chemicals.

EWG’s review of water pollution studies available in the open scientific literature and government dockets finds that PFOA pollutes tap water supplies in at least 9 states and the District of Columbia, including tap water consumed by Chicago residents and people served by 78 percent of water utilities tested by New Jersey authorities. [PFOA pollution studies – table below]. The full extent of PFOA contamination in water supplies nationally is not known. EPA does not require water utilities to test for PFOA. A lax Provisional Health Advisory, such as is now contemplated by EPA, would discourage the agency from setting a binding drinking water standard and requiring long-term national water testing for PFOA.

EPA’s plan to issue the emergency health advisory was reported by Ward in the Jan. 14 Charleston Gazette. Ward posted a January 8, 2009 EPA document [Download PDF] showing that EPA intends to issue an emergency health advisory with a cap on PFOA contamination at 0.4 parts per billion (ppb). By permitting that degree of PFOA contamination, and by casting its first PFOA health standard as a non-binding “advisory,” the Bush EPA would set a precedent discouraging future efforts to develop stricter mandatory standards.

As well, the planned action would undermine the agency’s voluntary program which has already succeeded in gaining agreement from DuPont, 3M, and 6 other major chemical companies to phase PFOA out of use in consumer products.

A nationwide biomonitoring study conducted by Antonia M. Calafat and a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the November 2007 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives found that PFOA contaminates the bodies of 99.7 percent of the U.S. population. (Calafat 2007). EPA’s Science Advisory Board has listed PFOA as a likely human carcinogen (SAB 2006). People can be exposed to the toxic chemical by, among other things, food packaging, stain-proof coatings on furniture and carpet and contaminated food and tap water.

A research team led by Edward A Emmett of the University of Pennsylvania has measured PFOA blood contamination for 324 residents of Little Hocking, Ohio, a community whose tap water is contaminated with PFOA from the nearby DuPont Parkersburg, WV, facility. The scientists found that PFOA concentrates in human blood, with median accumulations 105 times the chemical’s level in tap water. Such intense concentrations will drive chronic human health risks. (Emmett 2006)

The average level (geometric mean) of PFOA in blood samples from the U.S. population is 3.9 ppb. Drinking water contaminated with PFOA at 0.4 ppb would lead to 40 ppb of PFOA in blood, nearly 10 times higher than the current national average.

With nearly the entire U.S. population exposed to this chemical, the need for EPA to set standards to protect health could not be more critical. The agency’s planned Provisional Health Advisory, if issued, would let the chemical industry entirely off the hook for cleaning up the many tap water supplies that have become polluted with this chemical over the past several decades and would leave many millions of Americans drinking PFOA-contaminated tap water with no prospect for safer water. If EPA fails to set a health standard for PFOA that protects people over a lifetime of exposures, its Provisional Health Advisory may become the perfect parting gift from the administration to the chemical industry.

Table: An EWG review shows that PFOA pollutes tap water supplies in at least 9 states and the District of Columbia

State Where detected Concentration
Ohio Little Hocking public water system (Emmett 2006) 1.5-7.2 ppb
West Virginia Lubeck public water system (WVDEP 2005) 0.3-1.09 ppb
New Jersey 78% of public water systems tested (NJDEP 2007) 4.5-39 ppt
Minnesota Surface- and groundwater; municipal and private water wells (MDH/ATSDR 2008; MPCA 2008) 0.005-1.88 ppb
Alabama Tennessee river (Hansen 2002)
Mobile River (3M 2001)
0.14-0.51 ppb
0.1 ppb
Georgia Conasauga River; streams, ponds and groundwater near Dalton, GA (Konwick 2008) 0.049-1.15 ppb
City of Dalton drinking water supply (Fuchs 2008; United Steelworkers Union 2006) 5.5-6.9 ppt
Illinois Chicago tap water (Hawthorne 2008) 2.7-3.3 ppt
Virginia Ground and surface water at Dupont’s Spruance plant site (Virginia DEQ 2007) 7.1-7.5 ppb
Public drinking water near Spruance plant site (Virginia DEQ 2007) 7 ppt
New York Rivers and lakes (Sinclair 2006) 0.01-0.17 ppb
Washington, DC Tap water, tested by EWG 3.5 ppt


3M. 2001. Executive Summary: Environmental monitoring – multi-city study water, sludge, sediment, POTW effluent and landfill leachate samples. US EPA AR226-1030a.

Calafat AM, Wong LY, Kuklenyik Z, Reidy JA, Needham LL. 2007. Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals in the U.S. population: data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003-2004 and comparisons with NHANES 1999-2000. Environ Health Perspect 115(11): 1596-602.

Emmett EA, Shofer FS, Zhang H, Freeman D, Desai C, Shaw LM. 2006. Community exposure to perfluorooctanoate: relationships between serum concentrations and exposure sources. J Occup Environ Med 48(8): 759-70.
EPA (U.S Environmental Protection Agency). 2009. Provisional Health Advisories for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS). January 8, 2009.

Fuchs E, Sohn P. 2008. Union asks for testing of water. Chattanooga Times Free Press Friday, March 28, 2008.

Hansen KJ, Johnson HO, Eldridge JS, Butenhoff JL, Dick LA. 2002. Quantitative characterization of trace levels of PFOS and PFOA in the Tennessee River. Environ Sci Technol 36(8): 1681-5.

Hawthorne M, Elejalde-Ruiz A. 2008. Tribune Special Report: What’s in your water? Chicago Tribune April 17, 2008.

Konwick BJ, Tomy GT, Ismail N, Peterson JT, Fauver RJ, Higginbotham D, Fisk, AT. 2008. Concentrations and Patterns of Perfluoroalkyl Acids in Georgia, USA Surface Waters Near and Distant to a Major Use Source. Environ Toxicol Chem: 27(10): 2011-8.

MDH/ATSDR. 2008. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Public Health Assessment: Perfluorochemical Contamination in Lake Elmo and Oakdale, Washington County, Minnesota. Available: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/hazardous/topics/pfcs/pha/lakeelmo… [accessed January 16, 2009].

MPCA. 2008. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Active Landfill Evaluation for PFCs. Available: http://www.pca.state.mn.us/cleanup/pfc/index.html#activelandfill [accessed January 14 2009].

NJDEP. 2007. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection: Guidance for PFOA in Drinking Water at Pennsgrove Water Supply Company Available: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/watersupply/pfoa.htm [accessed May 20 2008].
SAB. 2006. US EPA Science Advisory Board Review of EPA’s Draft Risk Assessment of Potential Human Health Effects Associated with PFOA and Its Salts. EPA-SAB-06-006; Washington, DC, 2006.

Sinclair E, Mayack DT, Roblee K, Yamashita N, Kannan K. 2006. Occurrence of perfluoroalkyl surfactants in water, fish, and birds from New York State. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 50(3): 398-410.

United Steelworkers Union. 2006. Dalton, Georgia Water Testing Available: http://timesfreepress.com/news/2008/mar/28/union-asks-testing-water/?loc… [accessed May 20 2008].

Virginia DEQ. 2007. Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. PFOA at the Du Pont Spruance plant. Available: www.deq.virginia.gov/export/sites/default/info/documents/GetTheFacts.PFO… [accessed January 14 2009].

WVDEP. 2005. West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection: Groundwater Investigation Steering Team (GIST). Available: www.ewg.org/files/WVDEP_GIST.pdf [accessed May 20 2008].


EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.