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What you need to know about 'forever chemicals' and our drinking water

Right now there are no regulations for water contamination
Posted: 6:14 PM, Feb 26, 2020
Updated: 2022-03-02 16:25:49-05

They’re in everything from our non-stick fry pans to firefighting foams. They last forever. And right now, there are no hard and fast rules to keep them out of the water we drink and rely on every day.

Assessing the Problem

The Ohio EPA is testing public drinking water across the state this year to determine levels of these so-called “forever chemicals.” They’ve been linked to serious health concerns like kidney and testicular cancer, along with a host of other conditions.

Forever chemicals include PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a group of 3,500 man-made chemicals used to make our household products stain-resistant, water-proof and non-stick.

“They’re everywhere,“ warned Christopher Tavenor of the Ohio Environmental Council, “and there are serious health concerns with these substances.”

But even though forever chemicals have been linked to serious health issues, there are no state or national standards for the level of contamination allowed in drinking water.

Instead, the United States Environmental Protection Agency only offers a suggested guideline of 70 parts per trillion. Scientists, environmental advocates and many health experts argue that number is far too high.

“There are no mandatory requirements on either the polluters or drinking water utilities,” said Tavenor.

The Damage Done

Some drinking water supplies in Ohio have already been impacted, including water supplies in Belpre and Little Hocking Water Association. They both sit across the Ohio River from a DuPont plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia that relied on forever chemicals.

The plant first came under scrutiny in the late 1990s after Ohio environmental attorney Rob Bilott got a tip from a farmer.

“His cows were dying,” recalled Bilott, “and he was convinced there was something coming out of the landfill owned by the DuPont company nearby that was making his cows sick.”

Bilott took the case and went on to become the lead attorney in the nation on PFAS contamination, successfully taking DuPont to court for negligence and winning millions of dollars in damages in class action lawsuits.

Ohio also filed a lawsuit against DuPont alleging the company “caused widespread PFOA [perfluorooctanoic acid] contamination in Ohio as a result of decades-long, intentional releases of massive amounts” of the chemical into the environment.

The lawsuit quotes a University of Cincinnati study in 2017 that “confirms residents of the Mid-Ohio River Valley had elevated levels of PFOA” in their blood.

The Call for Change

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has long advocated for tough federal standards for PFAS and related chemicals, far lower than the EPA’s suggested guideline of 70 parts per trillion.

“The federal government is really dragging its feet and they’re not leading the way in terms of environmental protection,” warned Dr. David Andrews, a chief researcher with EWG.

Andrews and his team created an interactive map that shows PFAS in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities, including metropolitan areas.

Click here to view the map fullscreen.

Another map reveals industrial sites in Cleveland and across the country that have used the chemicals for industrial uses such as electroplating, raising concerns over the chemicals seeping into ground water, rivers and streams.

Click here to view the map fullscreen.

Finally, traces of PFAS have been found in Dayton’s water supply, linked to the use of firefighting foam at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

In response, the city “maintains an early warning, state-of-the-art monitor system” to alert to potential risk.

EWG also found evidence of PFAS contamination at military sites across the nation, including a former arsenal in Ravenna.

What’s in the Water?

Our 5 On Your Side investigation found traces of the chemical in water in Cleveland Heights and Cleveland, according to test results obtained through public record requests.

But that doesn’t mean you need to panic.

“Across the board,” said EWG’s Andrews, “the values were very low and expected to be below the one part per trillion range which is actually very good.”

The EWG is urging a one ppt level, while New Jersey is proposing 14 ppt and the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances Control proposes a level of 11 ppt.

Here in Ohio, the move to test water supplies came from Gov. Mike DeWine. He issued an order in September 2019 to figure out how prevalent these chemicals may be in Ohio’s drinking water.

That order resulted in a PFAS Action Plan issued in December 2019 to be undertaken by the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Health.

Finally, under pressure from Congress, the EPA in January took steps toward setting new, lower legal limits for two PFAS chemicals. It’s also proposing a regulatory determination to set national standards.

The PFAS Action Act of 2019 was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. It would require the EPA to designate PFAS and related “forever chemicals” as hazardous materials. The legislation is currently being reviewed by a Senate committee.