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Almost half of US prisons are likely contaminated by dangerous ‘forever chemicals,’ new Northeastern research shows

In prisons, where health care is already poor, the danger posed by PFAS exposure is even greater, says Phil Brown, a Northeastern professor of sociology and health sciences.

A fence outside of a correctional facility in Alabama.
While PFAS present health risks to the general public, prison environments present additional health risks when PFAS contamination is present. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Close to 50% of U.S. prisons and detention centers are located near sites that are likely contaminated by dangerous “forever chemicals,” according to new research.

Based on a watershed analysis of all 6,118 prisons and detention centers in the country, the researchers found that 5%, about 310, have a known contamination site nearby. However, 47%, about 2,285, are close to at least one presumptive contamination site, with many located near more than one. At minimum, there are 990,000 incarcerated people in those facilities, including at least 12,800 juveniles. 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” for their long-lasting impact on the environment, have been linked to increased risks of cancer, thyroid problems and infertility as well as compromised immune and cardiovascular systems.

PFAS exposure is difficult to avoid in the U.S. It’s in everything from drinking water to food packaging, cosmetics and even Band-Aids. Nearly every person in the U.S. has a measurable amount of PFAS in their blood, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“Every place you look you find PFAS, so people are just exposed in an enormous amount of ways and they don’t even know where to go to avoid it,” says Phil Brown, a distinguished professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University involved in the research.

But in prisons, the danger posed by PFAS exposure could be even greater.

“Generally, prisons have people that have a lot of chronic conditions,” Brown says. “They also are in places that don’t have public water systems for the most part, so they’re not going to have filtration. Prison health is, in general, very poor, so that plus where these folks are coming from –– they’re the lower health status people in the society –– they have come in there with lower health to begin with.”

Headshot of Phil Brown.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” are all around us, says Phil Brown, a distinguished professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

This is the first systematic, national analysis of carceral PFAS contamination, Brown says, and is part of his team’s larger effort to create a comprehensive map of PFAS contamination sites. 

Although most of the contamination sites located near prisons are what Brown and his team call “presumptive” contamination sites, “if someone went out there and tested it, the odds are extremely high that you would find contamination there,” Brown says. These sites are large industrial sites, wastewater treatment plants, airports, military sites and other locations that are known for using or storing PFAS.

There are some steps being taken to limit some forms of PFAS exposure in the U.S. States like Massachusetts, Washington and Maine have established drinking water standards for certain forever chemicals. And just this week, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the first national drinking water standard for PFAS, which the EPA estimates could reduce exposure for about 100 million people.

However, little has been done to reduce the risk of PFAS exposure among incarcerated populations. 

“We don’t know of any prisons that went out and tested,” Brown says. “We hope they will. That’s one of our recommendations, that they will go out and do that.”

Brown hopes this research draws attention not only to the broad need to limit PFAS exposure but the necessity of investing in prison health care. That means more blood testing and more health monitoring, especially for those with pre-existing conditions, he says.

“Compared to other countries we have a much higher population of incarcerated people,” Brown says. “We know there are all kinds of biases there about who’s in. These are people who are the more vulnerable population, and we need more testing to find out what they’re being exposed to.”