November 29, 2023

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2022/3/8 WTWomen

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EWG Science Analyst Sydney Evans
By Suzanne Forcese

“As part of my work at EWG, I personally tested northern Virginia taps for PFAS. Imagine my reaction when my own tap came in with one of the highest test results...I grew up not far from my current home just a few miles from Langley Air Force Base – just one of nine bases near Chesapeake Bay found to have dangerous levels of PFAS in the groundwater.... Langley tested the highest.”
-- Sydney Evans Science Analyst with EWG (Environmental Working Group)

Sydney Evans, Science Analyst with Environmental Working Group Science Investigative Team. The Mission of EWG’s scientists, policy experts, lawyers, and data experts is to expose broken chemical safety and agricultural laws, advocate for public health, and educate with peer-reviewed research. Evans focuses primarily on tap water contaminants, exposure analysis, and children’s health Photo Courtesy EWG

WaterToday first met up with Sydney Evans to learn about her research collaboration with the team that created EWF’s Tap Water Database

We wanted to share more of her passion, the ‘why?’ behind her motivation to fill the gap between government water safety standards and what is really flowing from the taps in American households.

WT: Please tell us about the journey that brought you to EWG.

Evans: The EWG is an advocacy nonprofit organization. I did not actually start out wanting to do this kind of work. It wasn’t until after graduate school and a job in another environment that I was drawn to EWG—more as an interest in how things work. Beyond that, I discovered there was a need for people like me who take science and make it relevant for the general public. I am a science analyst so that means I spend a lot of time looking at data that already exists.

The advocacy piece came later. The more I learned, the more invested I became. Some of the stuff is downright appalling just in that it’s allowed. All the disturbing information becomes worse. Just because it’s legal, it doesn’t mean our water is safe. It’s easy for water utilities to say, for example, PFAS levels in our tap water are safe because there are no federal standards.

WT: PFAS – the forever chemicals?

Evans: Yes. This one really hit me. Per and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are found everywhere due to their grease, oil, and water repellent properties. They eventually end up in our food and water. And the human body.

They harm fetal development, can increase cancer risks and other adverse health effects as well as reduce vaccine efficiency.

As part of my work at EWG, I personally tested northern Virginia taps for PFAS. Imagine my reaction when my own tap came in with one of the highest results. I grew up not far from my current home, not far from Langley Air Force Base – just one of nine bases near Chesapeake Bay found to have dangerous levels of PFAS in the groundwater. Langley tested the highest, 2.2 million parts per trillion (less than 70 parts per trillion is considered ‘safe’).

We know this because EWG obtained records from the Department of Defense. The DOD had this information from the EPA but they waited a full decade before alerting service members.

I spent the first 20 years of my life drinking that tap water. My entire family, my brother, my grandparents, my cousins all drank that PFAS-laced water. My Mom, who follows my work, wonders how she would have done things differently to protect our health and our lives had she known. She just inherently trusted the water was safe. How many more parents have that trust?

WT: Was the topic of ‘Water’ big in your childhood? Was it something that was of importance to you? Was there someone or something that inspired you? Are you motivated to help people understand the importance of water?

Evans: I have been trying to think of some beautiful epiphany but to be honest, as a child growing up in Virginia and even as a young adult, I took water for granted. I grew up on the water. It was something that was never in short supply. I never thought about the importance of water when I was younger. It wasn’t until I was in my master’s program in environmental health, that I studied water. But the examples of water quality issues were always historical. It really wasn’t until quite recently that I learned about water quality issues in the United States ...I just took the information as it came to me. The studies. And that was all there was. I had never gotten sick from drinking tap water.

However, the more I learned about the issues people are facing it was... this is really bigger than I thought.

What I love about this job is I can take what I now know and change people’s understanding of water issues. I can help them understand the things I see every day. Before I was always comfortable sitting in the background working on my computer but in this job, I have to talk to a lot of people. There are all kinds of different communication styles that are necessary – and that’s something I really had to work on to be able to share important information in a way that everyone can grasp.

In my previous experience, fresh out of graduate school, I was working at a local level in environmental health. I was the frontline person for people who had questions. I still try to draw from that experience. It was very grounding. Now as part of a National Advocacy Group – I don’t ever want to lose that grounding. When I do research and communication for EWG, I imagine I am talking to one of those people at the local level.

WT: What’s the most fun thing about your work?

Evans: You will probably laugh at me, but I absolutely love working with data. You can put any spreadsheet in front of me and I get excited about it. I want to figure out what it’s telling me, what cool graphs and charts can I make out of this, what is interesting. It’s fun and allows me to be creative but it's also rewarding. What I do has a lot of impacts and a lot of meaning. There are a lot of issues to tackle.

WT: How has your work changed you?

Evans: As a child growing up here in the U.S., and even as a young adult I was under the impression that living here with one of the most influential governments guaranteed me certain protections – that my food and water are safe. Most people believe this.

In choosing my career path of environmental science I discovered that we are not getting the whole story. It took me two advanced degrees and years of experience in the field to realize I was very wrong in assuming my water is safe. Higher education should not be the threshold for understanding these issues.

That’s why I work at EWG. I want to change that.

WT: Your bio describes your focus on tap water contaminants, exposure analysis and children’s health. Can you give our viewers an overview of what those topics entail?

Evans: A toxic cocktail is not exactly what you want to think about when it comes to your drinking water, but tap water in the U.S. can contain a lot of different pollutants – sometimes all at once.

In the U.S., contaminants are regulated one at a time, but people are exposed to them over a lifetime. Exposure to multiple contaminants can have a cumulative effect.

Children’s Health is one of my main focus areas. A lot of our guidelines are based on research protecting children. Anytime there is environmental exposure, children are particularly vulnerable. When we are looking at exposure over a lifetime, children obviously have a lot longer to be affected by dangerous chemicals. They are also developing and processes going on in the body during that development are particularly vulnerable to outside exposures to toxins that interact with those pathways. We want to make sure that our guidelines are protecting the sensitive population of children and pregnant women.

WT: Clearly it is time to clean up the water.

Evans: Cleaning up the water will mean reducing agricultural run-off and the discharge of industrial chemicals. There also needs to be significant investment in infrastructure improvements, especially for systems that serve smaller communities.

Most of our research showed that the majority of water systems meet federal regulations, but we also know that the limits for tap water contamination are rarely updated by the EPA.

We feel the EPA needs to set stricter science-based standards for individual contaminants in tap water. That’s how the EPA can actually lower the health risks.

Water testing through the country has found 280 contaminants in drinking water but only about 30% are regulated laws. Agencies are not protecting public health.

WT: When you speak about agricultural run-off, we also have to look at pesticides. Does this also become a part of your research?

Water isn’t my only concern. We are exposed to harmful chemicals on our food as well – which also end up in the water. Chlorpyrifos – widely used as a spray on our food crops, is one example. Exposure during pregnancy harms developing brains, leads to reduced IQ, causes delayed development of motor and sensory function, and leads to behavioral disorders. Just last August, after decades of study proving the harm of chlorpyrifos, the EPA banned its use. It was a significant win, and it proves that our work matters but we still have so much to do.

WT: These days we hear the term ‘follow the science’, and yet you are saying that peer-reviewed scientific data has existed for years while regulatory bodies appear not to act.

Evans: Safe water is not the standard and it should be. EWG’s mission is to empower consumers to instigate civic action and change. How do we apply pressure to the companies that are polluting us? Most contaminants have human sources – pesticides, PFAS, industrial solvents. All that would not exist in our water and food if not for human activities left unchecked. Even natural contaminants like arsenic and radiation can be made much worse by mining and fracking. Industrial farms and agricultural operations that use fertilizers and create concentrated sources of animal waste release large quantities of nitrates (linked to heart disease and other adverse health effects) into our water.

Just by telling people to buy home filtration systems does not put pressure on the companies that are polluting your drinking water – who can also turn around and sell you the filtration systems.

Erin Brockovich is a friend of EWG. If you have seen the movie with her name – that's a true story. She took on a big power company. The chemical that poisoned the community’s water is called chromium-6.

EWG’s research shows chromium-6 in the drinking water of 240 million Americans. Multiple studies show that even a very small dose of chromium-6 in drinking water can raise the risk of cancer, liver damage, developmental toxicity, and reproductive damage. It’s been 20 years since the chromium-6 scandal erupted and the EPA still has not set safety standards.

WT: You have been submitting many research papers with the EWG team and also writing a lot of articles published on the EWG website that our viewers can check out. You also are speaking to community groups, students and other organizations. Tell us about this.

Evans: I love speaking to graduate and undergraduate students. When I was a student myself, there were many mentors that I looked up to, so I want to do the same for students. I have not yet had the opportunity to speak to younger children, but if the opportunity arose, I would take them outdoors and instill in them a sense of protection for the environment. I think it would be fun to watch kids start with an idea and take it from there.

When I talk to groups I am always amazed at the look on their faces when they realize that their drinking water is not safe just because the regulatory bodies have not told them otherwise. I love questions because it shows EWG is empowering people to know the contaminant risks in their food and drinking water, and they are understanding that legal does not mean safe. They want to take action.

There are so many people struggling just to get access to clean water or just to get food on the table. It's hard to worry today about low levels of contaminants that you can’t see or taste that could affect you in months, years, even decades later. Organic foods and water filters help – but not everyone gets to take advantage of that safety? 

WT: Any last thoughts for our viewers?

Evans:  It’s been 20 years since the EPA has set standards for any new chemicals entering the water. We don’t just need better data. We need better standards. We deserve to live in the world our parents thought we were growing up in. One where the water is just water and the food is just food and its ok to give them to your kids. We deserve a country where protecting our health and the health of our children comes before profit.

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