Almost a Million People Could Suffer Lifelong Health Consequences – Drinking Water in U.S. Prisons May Have Dangerously High Levels of “Forever Chemicals”

Drinking Water

Recent research reveals that nearly half of America’s prisons and jails are at risk of PFAS contamination, posing significant health risks to incarcerated individuals. The study calls for improved water quality monitoring and clean-up efforts in these vulnerable communities.

Nearly a million people in incarceration may suffer lifelong health consequences.

Amid growing demands for enhanced water quality monitoring and improvement in rural and economically underprivileged areas, emerging research adds prisons, jails, and detention centers to the areas of concern. A new paper published in the American Journal of Public Health finds that 47% of America’s carceral facilities are in a watershed likely contaminated with “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. Because of limited water testing, only 5% of the facilities are in a watershed already known to carry dangerously high levels of these non-biodegradable molecules, but the study shows the true number is likely to be much higher.

Incarcerated populations are of particular concern for toxic drinking water because they have reduced access to mitigating a known exposure. Incarcerated people are generally already in worse health and therefore more vulnerable to acute health impacts compared to the free population. They are also disproportionately people of color and LGBT+, so exposures may heighten preexisting health inequities.

“If you think of the incarcerated population as a city spread out over this vast archipelago of carceral facilities, it would be the fifth largest city in the country, with potentially very high levels of toxicants in its water and no ability to mitigate exposure,” said senior author and medical anthropologist Nicholas Shapiro, an assistant professor in the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA.

The Prevalence and Impact of PFAS

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances­ — PFAS for short — include around 12,000 synthetic chemicals used since the 1940s in nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, waterproof makeup, shampoos, electronics, food packaging and countless other commercial and industrial products. They contain a bond between carbon and fluorine atoms that nothing in nature can break, and they can accumulate in the tissues of people and animals over time and cause harm in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand.

Exposure to PFAS is associated with reproductive and developmental effects, certain cancers, liver harm, and hormone disruption. The paper notes that in 2023, the EPA proposed to set the maximum allowable level for six PFAS at zero parts per trillion, highlighting the toxicity of these and the government’s concern and interest in regulating them.

Research Methodology and Findings

Shapiro and co-author Lindsay Poirier, an assistant professor of statistical and data sciences at Smith College, assembled a list of the country’s 6,118 carceral facilities from the Department of Homeland Security and engaged geospatial data analysis to identify those located within watersheds known or likely to be contaminated with PFAS. Co-authors with the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University led the identification of PFAS sites, drawing on their database of known PFAS contamination sources, in addition to a previously published model that can identify presumptive contamination.

The presumptive model includes three categories of sites: sources that release firefighting foam, such as airports; fire training sites; industrial sources where PFAS are typically used; and sources related to PFAS waste, such as wastewater treatment sites and landfills. The paper’s authors also considered whether the watershed boundary was at a higher elevation than the carceral facility, in which case this water would be more likely to enter the facility’s water supply.

When all the data was analyzed, 310, or 5% of the carceral facilities were found to be within a watershed and at a lower elevation than at least one known source of PFAS contamination. A minimum of 150,000 people, including at least 2,200 juveniles, reside in these facilities. Nearly half of all facilities — 47% — have at least one presumptive source of PFAS contamination within the same watershed boundary and at a higher elevation than the facility, including over half (56%) of the juvenile facilities.

These facilities house around 990,000 people, including at least 12,800 juveniles. The majority of these people — 890,000 — are incarcerated in state and county-run facilities.

The authors note that because about a third of the carceral facilities were missing population data, the total number of people who could be exposed to the chemicals is probably higher.

“It’s important that this is a nationwide study because analysis up to now in studies similar to ours have been at very hyperlocal levels,” said Poirier. “It was challenging largely because of substantial data gaps when it came to water quality monitoring, and gaps in the data, such as for population, on the carceral side. We’re trying to draw attention to areas that have been under assessed.”

The study did not attempt to determine if water from these contaminated or potentially contaminated sources reaches the facilities’ water supplies. The authors stressed that this is where more research is desperately needed, because contaminated water, especially for young people, can have lifelong consequences for health.

“The most rigorous and consistent water testing is done in well-resourced or particularly engaged communities, and these are also the communities with the most ability to mitigate their exposure to contaminants when they’re found,” Shapiro said. “Incarcerated populations have a lot in common with marginalized populations elsewhere in the country that lack the resources and political clout to get their water cleaned up. That needs to change.”

Reference: “Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance Exposure Risks in US Carceral Facilities, 2022” by Lindsay Poirier, Derrick Salvatore, Phil Brown, Alissa Cordner, Kira Mok and Nicholas Shapiro, 15 March 2024, American Journal of Public Health.
DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2024.307571

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

4 Comments on "Almost a Million People Could Suffer Lifelong Health Consequences – Drinking Water in U.S. Prisons May Have Dangerously High Levels of “Forever Chemicals”"

  1. I have a solution to that. Don’t commit a crime that gets you put into prison!

    • I have a solution to that. Don’t criminalize smoking a weed that was legal for millennia and only made criminal due to racist oppression. The same people who made it illegal were using chemicals to modify their own brains.

    • We have a higher prison population per capita than any other country on earth. The next highest ranked ones don’t even come close. we’re more than double the next contender down. One in twenty people in this country can expect to serve a prison sentence in this country. The reasons aren’t that complex. Being jailed for traffic citations, the revolving door of lack of institutional care availability for the mentally ill who instead get handled by Law enforcement. Defacto criminalization of homelessness. Draconian drug laws that still incarcerate users for piffling possession charges. probationary revocations. Just to name a few. DUI programs account for another huge chunk.

      The amount of tax dollars we waste on this is huuuuuge. Just on prisons alone we’re spending 265 billion with a B as per 2021. About five cents of every tax dollar funds Law Enforcement directly, and another 3-15 cents(depending on where you live) will be absorbed in justice system costs one one way or another. The whole shebang needs a serious & bipertisan overhaul. Knocking off this pointless drug war would slash these bills almost in half.

      Maybe it’s not as simple as you’d like to believe. Lots more going on than you were aware of until now.

  2. It’s ironic that so many people are in jail because we want to protect them from their own drug use, but then we force them to drink poisoned water.

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