Several Indiana community water systems may now have to address “forever chemical” contamination after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency updated its drinking water lifetime health advisory for four PFAS chemicals.
The EPA issued new interim drinking water lifetime health advisories for the PFAS chemicals PFOA and PFOS of .004 parts per trillion and .02 parts per trillion, respectively. The agency also established a 10-parts-per-trillion advisory for GenX chemicals and 2,000 parts per trillion for PFBS.
The new advisories replace more lenient lifetime health advisories of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS issued during the Obama administration.
Community water systems around the state that were previously tested for PFAS chemicals and found to have safe levels of the chemicals could now have to reckon with the possibility of having to pay for expensive treatment options to protect their customers’ health.
THE “FOREVER CHEMICALS”
PFAS chemicals have been used to manufacture products resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and water since the 1940s.
The chemicals, which include PFOA and PFOS and successor chemicals GenX and PFBS, are more widely known by the brand names those chemicals helped produce, like Teflon, Scotchgard and Gore-Tex.
The chemicals have been linked to serious health risks like increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, decreased birth weight and decreased vaccine response in children.
Not only are the chemicals toxic, they are almost everywhere.
PFAS chemicals do not break down naturally and can remain in the environment for a very long time. The chemicals also bioaccumulate, meaning PFAS chemicals essentially collect in the environment or in our bodies over time.
The chemicals have been found in water, air, fish and soil in locations all around the world.
Some studies indicate that most Americans, especially manufacturing workers, have been exposed to PFAS contamination and that PFAS chemicals can remain in the human body for at least five years.
Despite evidence of the potential for PFAS chemicals to be in Indiana waterways, the extent of the potential contamination was unclear until recently.
PFAS IN OUR WATER?
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management sampled water systems serving more than 10,000 people for some PFAS chemicals in 2014 and 2015 as part of the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule sampling.
Only one water system, the Town of Dyer Water Department, indicated the presence of PFAS chemicals beyond the minimum reporting level. The town’s surface water indicated the presence of the chemicals PFOS and PFHxS in initial sampling, but, according to IDEM, subsequent testing showed no PFAS was detected.
Nearly 10 years after the EPA-mandated testing, IDEM began its own PFAS testing, the IDEM PFAS Sampling Project for Community Public Water Systems.
The project set out to find where PFAS water contamination existed in the state and how effective conventional drinking water treatment was at treating PFAS chemicals. As part of the project, the agency would test water systems serving between 3,300 and 10,000 people in 2021, water systems serving less than 3,300 people in 2022 and water systems serving more than 10,000 people in 2023.
The agency released the final results of the first phase of testing in May, finding various PFAS chemicals in the raw water of 13 water systems and in the treated water of 10 systems.
None of the water systems sampled indicated the presence of PFAS chemicals above the EPA’s 2016 PFOA and PFOS Drinking Water Health Advisories of 70 parts per trillion at the time the results were released. But many exceed the new advisory levels.
A NONENFORCEABLE ADVISORY
The EPA’s drinking water lifetime health advisories are unenforceable guidelines that indicate the level of drinking water contamination where adverse health effects are expected to occur.
IDEM uses the guidelines to determine when to investigate water systems that may need to undertake mitigation efforts to ensure the water Hoosiers drink remains safe.
According to the 2016 advisory, drinking water was determined to have “safe” amounts of the chemicals as long as concentrations for both PFOA and PFOS in samples did not surpass 70 parts per trillion together.
In June, the EPA announced the new interim lifetime health advisories for PFOA and PFOS and the advisories for GenX and PFBS, and, overnight, some of the water systems sampled had what the EPA considered unhealthy concentrations of PFOA and PFOS.
IDEM would not directly identify the water systems that now have PFOA/PFOS above the new interim advisory, but phase one results show at least 12 water systems overall have PFOA or PFOS levels beyond the EPA’s advisory
The treated water of at least three water systems, Indiana American Water – Charlestown and Tennyson Water Utility in southern Indiana and North Manchester Water Department near Fort Wayne, indicate PFOA or PFOS at levels beyond what the EPA now considers safe.
IDEM said all community water systems with detections above the lifetime health advisory will be resampled for verification.
“If the results are confirmed greater than either the EPA health advisory or IDEM action levels, additional investigation may be necessary and mitigation options will be evaluated,” the agency said in an email.
IDEM said it would help affected water systems improve filtration or chemical treatment to address the PFAS chemicals.
Doing so would allow the agency to help communities prepare for expected federal changes to drinking water requirements.
The EPA announced it would develop a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation, which would be legally enforceable primary standards and treatment techniques for public water systems, for PFOA and PFOS by the end of 2022. The regulation would go into effect in 2023.
It is unclear whether the permanent maximum contaminant levels allowed for the chemicals will match the interim drinking water lifetime health advisory’s .004 parts per trillion for PFOA and .02 parts per trillion for PFOS or whether they will be more lenient.
The regulatory process, which will include public comment, will take into account the cost of meeting the new standards. For some water systems, meeting the maximum contaminant levels will require purchasing costly new equipment and other upgrades to existing treatment facilities.
The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators found that stricter PFOA/PFOS standards would cost more to meet than more lenient ones. An assessment of New York water systems found that a 4-parts-per-trillion MCL would cost $1.5 billion statewide for upgrades and a further $78 million per year for operation and maintenance, while an MCL of 36 parts per trillion would cost the state $366 million in statewide upgrades and $19 million in annual operation and maintenance.
On average, it would cost New York water systems $1.3 million per treatment system to meet a PFAS/PFOA MCL.
Some of the $5 billion in funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to address emerging contaminants, including PFAS contamination, could be made available to Hoosier water systems through the Indiana Finance Authority. States will also receive part of $23 billion in new Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, which may be used to provide low-interest loans and grants to communities needing to improve their wastewater or drinking water infrastructure.
The investment in combatting PFAS contamination could actually save the nation money, as new research has found that daily exposure to PFAS chemicals could be creating a multi- billion-dollar economic burden.
The study, by researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, found the medical conditions that are believed to result from PFAS exposure, like infertility, diabetes and endometriosis, generate medical bills and reduce worker productivity across a lifetime totaling up to $63 billion nationwide.
“Our results strongly support the recent decision by the EPA to lower the safe allowable level of these substances in water,” said NYU professor and study senior author Dr. Leonardo Trasande. “Based on our estimates, the cost of eradicating contamination and replacing this class of chemical with safer alternatives is ultimately justified when considering the tremendous economic and medical risks of allowing them to persist in the environment.”