Drinking Water Warning Issued for Nonstick Chemical

Flint lead scandal a factor in stirring action for other contaminants.

Drinking water in Parkersburg, West Virginia, was contaminated for decades by DuPont's Washington Works chemical plant, which produced a compound called PFOA that has water-repellent properties.

Drinking water in Parkersburg, West Virginia, was contaminated for decade by DuPont’s Washington Works chemical plant, which produced a compound called PFOA with water-repellent properties. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons user Pasa

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

Teflon — “Nothing messes with it,” reads the tagline on the latest ad campaign for the famed nonstick cookware. A fried egg, sunny side up, vaults out of the pan, leaving no scraps behind.

Teflon and related brands Gore-Tex, Scotchgard, and Stainmaster — all prized for their water-repelling, stain-protecting, and mess-preventing attributes — seem to contain magical properties. In fact, the magic comes from long chains of carbon and fluorine atoms called perfluorinated compounds that are chemically stable and remarkably repellent.

Yet the very same chemical formula that made perfluorinated compounds useful also turned them into an enduring and persistent hazard to public health and the environment. The life cycle of perflourinated compounds, the most well-known being PFOA and PFOS, is a familiar tale of mid-20th century chemical innovation and industrial profitability that evolved by the end of the century into a costly public cleanup problem and health risk.

Last month, seven years after it issued the first health guidelines for PFOA/PFOS in drinking water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the recommended level in drinking water to 0.07 parts per billion combined. The agency’s recommendation, which is voluntary, is intended to prevent kidney cancer, immune system damage, and other health problems linked to the compounds. Water utilities from New England to the Southeast reacted quickly and announced measures to add equipment and take other steps to remove PFOA/PFOS in water supplied to homes and businesses.

A Mess From An Economic Success

DuPont, 3M, and other industrial giants begin producing PFOA/PFOS in the years before World War II.

After decades of use, however, problems emerged. In the late 1990s, cows drinking from streams near a landfill at DuPont’s Washington Works production facility in Parkersburg, West Virginia, fell sick and died. Kidney cancers, high cholesterol levels, and thyroid disease started appearing in town residents. In time, communities near production facilities in Alabama, New York, and Vermont found perfluorinated chemicals in their drinking water. The wonders of post-war consumerism were suddenly less wondrous. The magic compounds themselves were starting to cause a mess.

The EPA began investigating the chemicals around the time the cows died. In 2002, the agency reached voluntary agreements with companies to phase out production of PFOA and PFOS, two perfluorinated compounds of the greatest health concern.

Because they were often discarded in landfills, the compounds seeped into the ground, eventually contaminating drinking water wells. In light of the new guidance issued last month, water utilities responded quickly. They changed water sources, invested in treatment equipment, and notified customers about potential health consequences. After detecting PFOA/PFOS levels above the new recommended limit, a utility in northern Alabama warned 100,000 residents in early June not to drink the tap water at all until it could install a carbon-filtration system, due to be completed in September.

Though some environmental health groups argue that the EPA should have acted sooner and that the limits should be even lower, many water policy analysts praised the EPA for updating the guidance and providing utilities with the information needed to assess options. Some see in the rapid response by utilities the influence of the drinking water debacle in Flint, Michigan where warnings about dangerous lead levels in water went unheeded.

“Because of Flint everyone and their brother is interested in drinking water in ways that were not evident six months ago,” Jim Taft, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, a regulators group, told Circle of Blue. “Everything gets visibility and attention now.”

EPA officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

An Advisory, Not a Regulation

The EPA did not publish a more rigorous and enforceable drinking water “standard” for PFOA and PFOS, the two compounds that have prompted lawsuits against chemical manufacturers and heightened concerns about municipal water supplies in Hoosick Falls, New York; North Bennington, Vermont; Parkersburg, West Virginia; and dozens of other communities. Regulated water standards — called an MCL in the policy world — must go through an extensive scientific and economic analysis, and a public hearing process that can take at least five years.

“The EPA is caught in a jam,” Alan Roberson, director of policy for Corona Environmental Consulting, told Circle of Blue. “It takes a long time to set standards but the agency is being asked to do something to respond, to show that it can be nimble.”

Instead, the agency strengthened a health advisory that it had issued in provisional form in 2009. Health advisories are meant to identify contamination levels at which a health risk could occur if ingested over days or a lifetime. The agency has issued roughly 180 water-related health advisories since 1987, including one last year for two cyanotoxins found in algae blooms.

Unlike standards, health advisories do not take into account the cost of treatment or the availability of treatment technology. Whereas standards are enforced by the EPA with fines and deadlines, health advisories have no such regulatory stick. Utilities can choose to act or to ignore the warning.

Mike Keegan, a policy analyst for the National Rural Water Association, told Circle of Blue that the health advisory is a “positive step.”

“I think it is helpful to have a health advisory as information to assist the public discussion,” Keegan said.

One Pennsylvania congressman called for a congressional investigation over PFOA/PFOS contamination at more than 660 military bases that used firefighting foams with the compounds. Many utilities, meanwhile, are following the precautionary principle. Don Sims, general manager of the West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority, in northern Alabama, told his customers on June 2 not to drink the tap water.

“I would rather be over-cautious than under-cautious,” Sims told AL.com. “I’m not a doctor, I’m not a chemist, but when [federal officials] tell one class of people the water is not safe, I don’t want to be the one to say ‘you drink it and you don’t.’ So I said nobody drink it.” Six days later, West Morgan East Lawrence began buying water from a neighboring utility to blend with its own supply. The purer water helped. The water authority now says that PFOA/PFOS levels are below the EPA limit.

EPA Data Provides Partial Contamination Picture

PFOA/PFOS is not a new warning signal on the EPA radar. The agency has investigated its potency and prevalence for nearly two decades. As a result of an initial investigation in 2002, both chemicals have been largely eliminated from U.S. production lines. 3M, the sole manufacturer of PFOS in the United States, phased out production between 2000 and 2002. Major manufacturers of PFOA agreed to stop producing the chemical by 2015, though the EPA says that there are still “limited” ongoing uses.

How widespread is the contamination? EPA data provide a partial answer. The two compounds are on a list of unregulated contaminants that the EPA monitors. Every five years or so, the agency requires certain utilities to test drinking water supplies for several dozen pollutants. The results are used in setting regulatory standards. The most recent monitoring period, which ran from January 2013 to December 2015, assessed 28 chemical and eight microbial contaminants.

Some 4,864 utilities, most of which serve more than 10,000 people, tested their drinking water for PFOA and PFOS. Of those, less than one percent, or 46 systems, had PFOS above 0.04 parts per billion (ppb). Only 13 systems had PFOA concentrations above 0.02 ppb. The new health standard is 0.07 ppb for both chemicals combined. The results also list how many systems were above 0.07 ppb for each chemical: 94 for PFOS and 108 for PFOA. Four other perfluorinated compounds appeared in dozens of water systems.

It is helpful information, but the data do not provide the entire picture, according to Roberson. Most of the utilities in the monitoring program use rivers or lakes as a water supply, and contamination from perfluorinated chemicals generally happens to groundwater, he said. Smaller systems are more likely to use groundwater, and they were not tested.

“You can’t do a simple extrapolation from the database to estimate national level data,” Roberson explained.

In the absence of regulatory mandates, it is the local communities that must decide how to proceed, says Keegan, who recommends full transparency from the utilities about any contamination. “Do you stop using the water? Do you treat the water? Do you move to a different source? These are all things that you have to consider locally.”