‘Forever chemicals’ have been found in bottled water brands sold at Whole Foods and CVS, and it’s part of a larger contamination problem

A woman drinks from a water bottle in Portland, Oregon.

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A woman drinks from a water bottle in Portland, Oregon.
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Steve Dipaola/Reuters

  • Massachusetts officials recently issued a public-health warning about chemicals called PFAS, which have been found in some bottled water sold at the state’s Whole Foods and CVS locations.
  • These so-called “forever chemicals” have been associated with cancer, liver damage, and developmental issues.
  • The bottled water distributor identified in the Massachusetts health advisory, Spring Hill Farm Dairy, announced on August 2 that it will be closing.
  • The International Bottled Water Association now requires its member companies to test for PFAS, but the industry group doesn’t represent all bottled-water manufacturers.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more.

Bottled water is often considered a safe alternative when tap water is found to contain contaminants like arsenic and lead. But a recent spate of investigations has found that not all bottled water is free of potentially toxic chemicals.

In June, testing from the Center for Environmental Health found “high levels” of arsenic in bottled-water brands owned by Whole Foods and Keurig Dr Pepper. Those findings confirmed earlier research from Consumer Reports, which found levels of arsenic in the bottled water that exceeded the allowable limit set by the FDA.

Regulators are also becoming increasingly concerned about the presence of another chemical, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), in bottled water.

In July, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health warned residents about PFAS in bottled water sold at the state’s Whole Foods and CVS locations. The advisory specifically mentioned bottled water sourced from local distributor Spring Hill Farm Dairy.

Spring Hill agreed to adopt a new filtration system, but on August 2, the company announced it was closing instead.

“This whole ordeal has been too much for a small, fourth-generation family business,” the company said in a statement.

The International Bottled Water Association now requires its member companies to test for PFAS, but the industry group doesn’t represent all bottled-water manufacturers.

PFAS is a class of ‘forever chemicals’ that can linger in your blood

Sara Dean and her 2-year-old son, Patrick, at their home in Parchment, Michigan, a few months after it was discovered that Parchment's drinking water was contaminated with high levels of PFAS.

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Sara Dean and her 2-year-old son, Patrick, at their home in Parchment, Michigan, a few months after it was discovered that Parchment’s drinking water was contaminated with high levels of PFAS.
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David Kasnic/The Washington Post/Getty Images

PFAS became popular in the United States around the 1940s, when manufacturing companies realized the chemicals could resist heat, grease, stains, and water.

Though many PFAS have been phased out of the manufacturing industry, they still lurk in drinking water and consumer goods such as food packaging, carpets, leather, textiles, and non-stick cookware. In addition to their ties to cancer, PFAS are associated with liver damage and developmental issues.

PFAS rarely break down in the environment and can linger in water and air for thousands of years, which is why they’ve earned the nickname “forever chemicals.” Consuming or inhaling them means they could stay in the body for life.

Read more: A scientist who worked at a company that’s being sued over dumping ‘forever chemicals’ warns the toxins ‘stay in your blood and don’t leave’

Today, PFAS are found in the bloodstreams of 99% of Americans.

Massachusetts warned pregnant women about bottled water ‘out of an abundance of caution’

A discarded water bottle at Warminster community park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

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A discarded water bottle at Warminster community park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images

On July 2, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health warned that “certain bottled water products” from Spring Hill contained levels of PFAS that might be a health risk to pregnant or breastfeeding women and bottle-fed infants. The products in question contained the word “spring” on the label and included 365 Spring Water (sold at Whole Foods) and Ice Canyon Spring Water (sold at CVS).

The department said it issued the warning “out of an abundance of caution,” since the levels of PFAS did not exceed the safety threshold set by Massachusetts or the EPA.

CVS said in a statement that it has halted shipments of Ice Canyon Spring Water and switched to suppliers “who have not identified any PFAS issues.” The company said it would offer a full refund to customers.

Whole Foods did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The latest water samples from Spring Hill – which billed its water as “so pure you can see the difference” – showed no detectable levels of PFAS. However, the company’s owners said in a letter to customers that “the deluge of unwarranted attention on our company, when PFAS is clearly a national problem with thousands of contributors, has made it impossible for us to keep operating.”

Concerns linger about PFAS in water

Researchers continue to uncover evidence that PFAS chemicals are leaching into water supplies across the country.

In July, the watchdog Environmental Working Group (EWG) detected PFAS at 100 new sites in the US, bringing their estimated total to more than 700 sites across 49 states. Many of these sites included public water systems, military bases, and industrial plants.

There are 5,000 varieties of PFAS, but the EPA has only established a health advisory for two types: PFOA and PFOS. These chemicals represent “the most concerning” varieties of PFAS, according to David Andrews, a senior scientist at the EWG.

At the end of 2018, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wrote a letter encouraging the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) to require its member companies to test for PFAS, according to Consumer Reports. In January, the association mandated testing for 14 variations of the chemical class; so far, it said, no samples have been found to contain PFAS concentrations above the EPA’s safety threshold.

“It took decades of study before we really understood how potent they are,” Andrews previously told Business Insider of PFAS. “These chemicals are concerning and we should eliminate as much [exposure] as possible.”