A first-of-its-kind national study found the tap water in parts of southwest Florida contains chemicals that don’t break down in the environment.
The so-called “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, have been linked to cancer, obesity and developmental delays in children.
A five-year study, recently released by the U.S. Geological Survey, found the tap water in Gainesville, Tampa Bay and Fort Myers contained the PFAS chemicals.
These chemicals are used to make products many people use in their daily life, such as cleaners — especially those that target grease and stains — personal care products like makeup and shampoo, and water-resistant material.
“PFAS chemicals are known as a ‘forever chemical.’ They do not break down in the environment. They build up in your body. They cause havoc on your health,” said Stel Bailey, Founder and Chief Executive Director of Fight for Zero, a nonprofit against toxic waste.
Bailey first got involved in the fight against PFAS chemicals a decade ago when her life changed forever.
“I was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 alongside my little brother, our uncle, who is not blood-related, my father and our family dog. We all got cancer boom-boom-boom in the same year,” said Bailey.
Without a family history of cancer, her doctors told her it was likely caused by her environment.
Specifically, the forever chemicals used at the military installations near her home on Florida’s space coast where she grew up.
“It was traumatizing,” Bailey said of the cancer diagnosis. “But I wanted to take what I went through, what my family went through, and make a difference.”
The U.S.G.S. tested private wells and public water sources across the country from 2016 to 2021.
Three samples from the Fort Myers area had detectable traces of PFAS.
There are a dozen different water utilities that provide drinking water to the greater Fort Myers area, the study did not specify which locations in the area where tested.
Lee County Utilities first conducted PFAS testing in 2012 as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule.
The results of these tests indicated no detection of PFAS chemicals at the time, according to a county spokesperson.
The county is currently testing for 29 PFAS chemicals for the next two years.
“Rest assured that Lee County Utilities’ water is safe to drink,” the county said in a statement. “The ensure the safety of our drinking water, LCU has implemented various treatment options at four out of our five water plants. These options include Activated Carbon Ion Exchange, Nano-Filtration, and Reverse Osmosis.”
The City of Fort Myers did not respond to a request for comment.
Dr. Nora Demers, a Biology Professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, said the fact that these chemicals are in our drinking water is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“It being in the water is the symptom of a larger disease. Unless we go after the disease and address the fact that these chemicals are appearing in our water, we’re going to keep having these problems,” Demers said.
Among those problems include “autism, ADD, ADHD, obesity, cancers, reproductive problems,” according to Demers.
“It’s in our drinking water. It’s in our food. It’s on our clothes. It’s in our shampoos. It’s in our conditioners,” Demers said.
Demers suggests changing consumer habits as the best way for society to fight back against forever chemicals.
Bailey, meanwhile, says there are steps you can take to fight back.
“If you do have (PFAS) in your tap water, I highly recommend getting a filtration system that will lessen that exposure,” said Bailey.