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|Screenshot of a data map documenting PFAS contamination around the United States. Image: Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University. Click to enlarge and access the searchable map.|
Reporter’s Toolbox: Database Helps Track PFAS Drinking Water Contamination
By Joseph A. Davis
PFAS chemicals in drinking water is a story that is getting bigger by the day, and very well could impact your community, no matter what region you are in. Fortunately, there’s an expanding database that can help you report that news.
Although not enough is known to generalize about health effects from a class of as many as 4,000 distinct compounds, public health concern over water contaminated by PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, has been growing for years.
For instance, more than a decade ago, cancer worries arose at a DuPont chemical plant in West Virginia where drinking water had been contaminated by one of the PFAS family of chemicals. In 2017, DuPont’s successor eventually settled a class-action lawsuit by some 3,550 plaintiffs for $671 million.
A recent study found that
at least 19 million people in 43 states
are drinking PFAS-contaminated water.
In subsequent years, PFAS have been showing up all over the place, from Vermont to Michigan. The problem is undoubtedly widespread — a recent study found that at least 19 million people in 43 states are drinking PFAS-contaminated water.
PFAS threat kept under wraps?
Be aware of two key facets of the story:
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been struggling, so far unsuccessfully, to get a grip on the PFAS threat, and
- Some government agencies have been hiding information on PFAS from the public to avoid bad publicity.
So the best place to start might be with what they don’t want you to know.
In 2018, thanks to a scoop by Annie Snider of Politico, for instance, we learned that the Trump administration, including EPA, was suppressing a study of PFAS health effects by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, because it feared a “public relations nightmare.”
That study, after uproar, was finally released. To summarize, it said particular PFAS chemicals may:
- affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and older children
- lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
- interfere with the body’s natural hormones
- increase cholesterol levels
- affect the immune system
- increase the risk of cancer
SEJournal Online’s TipSheet column has reported on the PFAS story before here, here and here. And this detailed Backgrounder just published helps explain this complicated class of chemicals.
Tapping the data on PFAS
Environmental journalists are finding new ways to report the PFAS story. And here’s one: The national study mentioned earlier, conducted by advocacy nonprofit Environmental Working Group and a Northeastern University research group, is also accompanied by a steadily building database from two of the PFAS drinking water contamination incidents.
The database is online and searchable and can be viewed in a handy map format.
So now would be a great time to check whether PFAS chemicals are affecting water near you.
Note that you may not be the first in your area; the EWG database has already spawned stories in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania, among other locales.
Here are a few basic starting points using the EWG database, especially if PFAS contamination is a story you haven’t yet been covering.
- Look at your area on the EWG map database to see if any contamination has been found.
- If so, ask how many people may be affected. Is it private wells or public systems?
- Ask where the contamination has been coming from. Sometimes it’s obvious; sometimes not.
- What utilities, municipalities and state agencies are in charge? What are they doing?
- Ask whether anyone has looked for, or tested water for, PFAS contamination?
- Ask what homeowners and utility customers can do to protect themselves.
Other ways to report the story
Some of your best sources may prove to be at the state or local level. This short list of resources is only a beginning.
- State drinking water regulatory agencies, which may already be well ahead of EPA (or not).
- Local drinking water utility or utilities. Get their latest “Consumer Confidence Report” and see what it says. Lack of PFAS information may not mean much.
- Local activist groups or the EWG.
- The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, which follows the PFAS issue.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 25. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.