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Report: Toxic PFAS likely contaminate half of US prisons' water supply

A report found nearly 1 million incarcerated people, including about 13,000 juveniles, are likely drinking water filled with forever chemicals.
Toxic PFAS likely contaminate half of US prisons' water supply: report
Posted at 8:19 PM, Apr 10, 2024

U.S. water utilities will soon be required to test for and limit the "forever chemicals" in their drinking supply, but for one already vulnerable population — the nation's incarcerated people — mitigating the damage in the meantime could be especially difficult. 

A new report published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 47% of America's carceral facilities are getting their drinking water from sources likely contaminated with toxic PFAS, commonly referred to as forever chemicals, while 5% draw water from sources already known to be contaminated. Around 1 million people or more are currently housed in those institutions, including nearly 13,000 juveniles, the research states.

However, since information gaps already exist for PFAS contamination — and disproportionately for juvenile carceral facilities and others near likely contaminated sources, per the report — the researchers say the amount of incarcerated people drinking PFAS is likely much higher.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of chemicals used to make products that are resistant to heat, water, stains and more, according to the CDC. They don't break down naturally in the environment — hence "forever" chemicals — and once in the body/bloodstream, they become linked to reproductive and developmental issues, cancers, liver problems and more.

In recent years, the substances have become a top concern for the Environmental Protection Agency, which the Biden administration tasked Wednesday with finalizing limits water suppliers must follow to reduce PFAS in their supply. They generally have a couple of years to test for exceeding limits, and if they're over, the utilities have a few more years to install treatment systems. 

SEE MORE: Biden admin. imposes first drinking water limits on toxic PFAS

But as the researchers in the report point out, the testing done on the water supplies of carceral facilities should be a top priority to reduce the public health inequities they already face.

For example, the report states incarcerated people are estimated to have a life expectancy reduced by two years for every one year spent imprisoned, and studies have shown when compared to the general population, they're more likely to have cancers, infectious diseases and other health issues. Juvenile detention has also been linked to worse physical health later in life. 

Add that on top of PFAS contamination and the risk of serious health effects for incarcerated people — who are disproportionately of minority groups — becomes exacerbated, especially as they can't find alternative drinking water sources or treatment devices to protect themselves.

"Today's widespread public, scientific and regulatory attention to PFASs could be parlayed into broader environmental monitoring for imprisoned people," the report states. "That monitoring can contribute to more attention to the overall health of this population, which is historically neglected and faces heightened likelihood for negative health outcomes."

The researchers state that increased monitoring of the drinking water at carceral facilities is needed to fully identify the extent of PFAS contamination and exposure risk. They stress advocacy groups should take action to push these issues, as the incarcerated people can't raise awareness or obtain the data themselves.

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