UNH research finds households willing to pay $13 monthly for 'forever chemical' protection

Tuesday, July 2, 2024
Households on public water systems are willing to pay an average of $13.07 a month, or $156.84 annually on their monthly bills to protect themselves from PFAS — potentially cancer-causing chemicals — according to new research from the UNH.  

Households on public water systems are willing to pay an average of $13.07 a month, or $156.84 annually, on their monthly bills to protect themselves from PFAS — potentially cancer-causing chemicals — according to new research from the University of New Hampshire.  

This amount is insufficient to cover the costs of municipal-level treatment. It does, however, align more closely with the costs of home water treatment systems that are effective at removing PFAFS from drinking water   

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), often called "forever chemicals" due to their persistence in the environment, are a group of man-made chemicals used in various industrial and consumer products for their water- and stain-resistant properties. Local contamination cases include the 2014 contamination of drinking water wells at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth and the 2016 contamination of drinking water in five towns near the Saint-Gobain performance plastics plant in Merrimack.    

The research, published in the Journal of Water Resource Planning and Management and supported by the NH Agricultural Experiment Station, was led by Scott Lemos, senior lecturer of business administration at UNH's Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, John Halstead, professor of environmental economics at UNH's College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, and Tristan Price, environmental specialist at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.  

Lemos says the findings suggest that future legislation to address PFAS doesn’t always have to focus on implementing system-wide treatments, especially since PFAS contamination is more common in private wells.    

“Instead of mandating an entire municipal water system to clean up the water, state and federal officials can test wells on a more localized basis in areas where PFAS pollution is a concern,” Lemos says. “If there's a problem with the water in the well, subsidize a reverse osmosis filter for underneath the sink. That is a more cost-effective policy option than any other besides doing nothing.”    

Lemos says an under-the-sink reverse osmosis filter for PFAS removal costs approximately $500 and has a lifespan of around 10 years, resulting in an average annual cost of about $50, including maintenance. When accounting for filter replacement and other upkeep, the yearly total cost is estimated at $100, which is lower than the $150 per year the research survey found households were willing to pay.   

“Pragmatically, there must be economic research that measures what consumers are willing to pay for environmental remediation, like removal of PFAS from drinking water, as that is a key factor in the cost-benefit calculation for any piece of environmental legislation,” Lemos says. “The challenge with PFAS is that it’s an insidious problem. It’s everywhere, undetectable by our senses, and its health effects may not appear for decades. It is important to understand what consumers know and how much they are willing to pay to avoid potentially harmful exposure to PFAS, not just today but also years in the future.”   

Researchers found that survey respondents with moderate or major health concerns about tap water were more likely to pay a higher amount, along with younger people, females and households with children.   

Halstead notes that information on PFAS and its possible detrimental health effects is somewhat limited, and its effects are still the subject of much epidemiological research, making it difficult for respondents to place a value on PFAS removal. Some studies have linked PFAS to causing cancer, immune deficiencies, liver and kidney disease, reproductive and developmental issues, hormone disruption and reduced vaccine efficacy.  

Lemos cautioned that hypothetical bias can also factor into survey studies. 

“We gave respondents information about PFAS and then asked, 'Given this information, what is a reasonable amount you would pay monthly?' It's very hypothetical,” Lemos says. “We asked how much they would be willing to pay, but we didn't force them to pay anything. So, people will likely overestimate how much they'd be willing to pay."    

Scott Lemos

This new research comes after the EPA announced new, more stringent drinking water standards targeting multiple types of PFAS, resulting in much debate about municipal costs to implement these standards. 

Lemos says the study adds to the conversation about possible solutions and shows that targeted, cost-effective solutions can be achieved at the hyperlocal level.  

Lemos and Halstead previously collaborated with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services on research finding that residents were willing to pay $35 monthly for safer water.   

That study supported economic evidence for reducing arsenic levels in public drinking water. Compared to PFAS, the health impacts of arsenic ingestion have been studied for considerably longer, according to Halstead, making it somewhat easier to estimate the benefits of reducing arsenic in drinking water.  

Lemos is working on a follow-up study to examine whether homes in areas with high PFAS contamination, such as around the Saint-Gobain plant and Pease Air Force Base, sell for less than homes in non-contaminated areas.  The research team is also exploring linking their research efforts with ongoing economic studies done by researchers in Maine and New York.