Is Washington’s Water Safe to Drink? ‘Forever Chemicals’ are Found Around Our Water Sources

Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash

As Washingtonians start their day with a fresh cup of coffee, a reality lies unseen at the bottom of their cups — an invisible yet potent threat in the form of toxic “forever chemicals” that have silently infiltrated our life source: drinking water. But what are these “forever chemicals,” and why should we be concerned? 

“Forever chemicals” is a colloquial term for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. These synthetic chemicals, with their superhero-like resistance to breakdown, earn their nickname due to their remarkably long stay in the environment and our bodies — virtually “forever.” First introduced in the 1940s, they are used in a wide range of products, from non-stick pans and water-repellent clothing to the foam firefighters use to douse flames. 

At first glance, PFAS may seem like innocent bystanders in our daily life, but their persistence holds a much darker truth. Over time, these chemicals accumulate in our bodies and the environment in a process known as bioaccumulation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has linked long-term exposure to various health risks, including cancer, hormone disruption and even developmental issues in children. This begs the question: How did these chemicals end up in our drinking water? For one, they leach from products and industrial sites into soil and water. They also enter water systems through runoff from fields where firefighting foam has been used. Given their widespread use, due partly to their resistance to natural degradation processes, PFAS have become omnipresent, even making their way into remote Arctic regions. 

Recent findings of PFAS in the drinking water across Washington have understandably raised alarms. This comes as the state is demanding water districts to test for PFAS, revealing the extent of contamination in several communities. But is Washington’s water safe to drink? The answer, unfortunately, is more complicated than a simple yes or no. In many areas, the levels of PFAS detected are above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) advisory level. Some communities have already been forced to find alternative sources of water. While steps are being taken to combat this issue, it is clear that Washington’s water contamination problem isn’t one that can be brushed aside.

Until there’s a comprehensive solution, there are several steps individuals can take to protect themselves:

  • Water Filters: Invest in activated carbon filters or reverse osmosis systems that are known to be effective in reducing PFAS levels. 
  • Bottled Water: In areas where contamination is severe, consider using bottled water for drinking and cooking. 
  • Awareness and Advocacy: Stay informed about your local water quality and advocate for stronger regulations on PFAS. 

While the PFAS crisis may seem like a dystopian narrative, it is worth noting that it has pushed us to confront our unsustainable practices. The situation has generated a unique opportunity for innovation in water purification technology, as well as prompting us to rethink our relationship with synthetic chemicals. Indeed, the “forever chemicals” have revealed that “forever” can be a curse, rather than a blessing. It is a wake-up call, not just for Washington, but for the world, that we need to be more vigilant about what we let slip into our water and our bodies. 

However, while the focus of this narrative has largely been on Washington, it is crucial to recognize that the challenge of PFAS contamination is not confined within state lines or even national borders. This is a global issue with implications that reach far beyond the Pacific Northwest. A recent study from the Environmental Working Group reports:

“New laboratory tests commissioned by EWG have for the first time found the toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities, including major metropolitan areas. The results confirm that the number of Americans exposed to PFAS from contaminated tap water has been dramatically underestimated by previous studies, both from the Environmental Protection Agency and EWG’s own research. Based on our tests and new academic research that found PFAS widespread in rainwater, EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water. EWG’s tests also found chemicals from the PFAS family that are not commonly tested for in drinking water.”

With their ability to bioaccumulate, PFAS pose a considerable risk to biodiversity and the health of our planet.