[Perspective] Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in Drinking Water-Disparities in Community Exposures Based on Race and Socioeconomic Status

By Kelly L Smalling and Paul M Bradley
Environ Health Perspect
April 24, 2024
DOI: 10.1289/EHP13899

Current research is beginning to explore causal links between drinking water quality and environmental justice indicators such as race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other means of marginalization. What we know from decades of research on drinking water contaminants is that associations do exist between poorer water quality and these indicators.14 For example, large community water supplies (CWS) serving low-income, socially disadvantaged communities of color were more likely to have higher arsenic and nitrate content in prior studies1,5 compared to those serving socially advantaged communities, and small rural water systems are more likely to contain higher levels of lead and less likely to support advanced water treatment.6 To date, however, associations between environmental justice and drinking water exposures to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been explored in only a few studies, with mixed results due to limited sample numbers or geographic scopes with insufficient differentiation among subpopulations by race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status.7,8

Several PFAS are of concern to human health due to their ubiquity in the environment, toxicity, and widespread human exposure through water and food.912 Contamination of drinking water with PFAS is predominantly associated with urban areas; industrial sites such as metal plating facilities and plastics manufacturing, where these chemicals are used as part of the manufacturing process; and places where PFAS-containing aqueous film-forming foam is released (e.g., military installations, airports, and firefighter training areas).11,13 Many such areas are located in or proximal to marginalized communities.

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