PFAS Part I — the forever chemicals

By Mike Ekberg, manager of water resource monitoring and analysis

You’ve probably heard about PFAS, but what are they and why are they such a hot topic today?

Amazing chemicals
PFAS or per- and polyflouroalkyl substances are a group of chemicals developed in the 1940s that can repel water, dirt, and grease; tolerate high temperatures; make fabrics stain resistant; and can be used to extinguish fires. They are nearly indestructible and last for a really long time. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are nearly 5,000 PFAS compounds in existence today.

Widely used in consumer products
PFAS are widely used in consumer products such as cookware, pizza boxes and stain repellants. The properties of PFAS make them well suited for the creation of nonstick cookware surfaces, water resistant fabrics, stain resistant carpets, and for use in some firefighting foams. These products are popular with consumers but the PFAS chemicals used in their production are bad for the environment.

 

Credit: Grand Valley State University http://www.gvsu.edu/pfas/

PFAS are bad news for the environment
Unfortunately, some of the same properties that make PFAS valuable in manufacturing, make them bad news for clean air, soil and water. The chemical bonds that hold PFAS molecules together make them highly resistant to breaking down in the natural environment. Once they get into soil and water, they persist for very long periods of time. Because PFAS are so persistent, they can buildup (bioaccumulate) in fish and wildlife. They can also accumulate in the blood and serum of people. Studies have shown that low levels of PFAS are commonly present in municipal wastewater sludge and effluent as well in many rivers and streams where treated or untreated human sewage is discharged. The issue of PFAS in the environment is not going to go away anytime soon.

Widespread exposure to PFAS in the U.S. population
Humans can be exposed to PFAS by consuming PFAS-contaminated food and water or by using products that contain PFAS.

Studies have shown widespread exposure of PFAS in humans. (link to study Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, Updated Tables). Yet, no one knows for sure the effects on human health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Human health effects uncertain
Studies of laboratory animals given large doses of PFAS have found that some PFAS may affect growth and development, reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system, and injure the liver. Epidemiologic studies have examined a number of health effects and associated exposure to some PFAS compounds with the following:

  • High cholesterol
  • Increased liver enzymes
  • Decreased vaccination response
  • Cancer
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Adverse reproductive and developmental effects

Nonetheless, more research is needed to better assess human health effects from exposure to PFAS. For more information on human health related effects of PFAS and what people can do to minimize exposure to these compounds visit Ohio EPA’s PFAS webpage.

PFAS what’s next?
Science is working to better understand how PFAS interacts with the human body and what levels of exposure are safe. Meanwhile industry is phasing out certain PFAS chemicals and replacing them with others. Whether these new PFAS compounds are safer is unknown.

A lack of coherent policies and standards for PFAS in drinking water at the federal level has, in many cases, led to state regulatory agencies adopting their own standards. This has led to a hodgepodge of different drinking water standards for various PFAS chemicals across the country.

Public water systems with PFAS in their source water find themselves in the unenviable position of having to make decisions without federal guidance as to which standards they should apply and what treatment options are most cost effective and ensure consumer safety. The way forward on this issue remains a work in progress.

Most manufactured chemicals we use end up in the environment
Perhaps the most striking point in dealing with the issue of PFAS in the environment is these compounds are a reminder to us all that most manufactured chemicals we use as consumers end up in the natural environment in one way or another.

Our consumer-driven society creates strong incentives to create new chemical compounds in manufacturing and industry each year. Yet, our knowledge of the ultimate fate of these compounds and their potential impacts on human health and the environment is often sorely lacking.

In Part II,  I’ll take a closer look at the issue of PFAS in source waters for public drinking water systems and how this issue is being addressed at the national, state, and local levels.

The one thing private well owners should do

By Mike Ekberg, manager of water resources monitoring and analysis

If you own a private well, do you have it tested at least annually? You should. Your family’s health depends on it.

Just because your water tastes good doesn’t mean it is good. If you want to be sure your drinking water is safe, you need to have it tested.

Test at least annually
The National Ground Water Association (NGWA) recommends well owners test their water at least annually for bacteria, nitrates, and contaminants specific to your area. Consider more frequent testing if:

• There is a change in taste, odor, or appearance of well water.
• The well has a history of contamination.
• The well is near a septic system.
• There have been recurring incidents of gastrointestinal illness.
• An infant is living in the home.
• Home water treatment equipment has been installed.

In our area, I recommend the following tests:

Total Coliform – Coliform bacteria is an indication of potential disease-causing bacteria or viruses in well water. Not all coliform bacteria is harmful, but the presence of coliform bacteria in well water may be an indication that water from the land surface is directly entering the well. Coliform bacteria may also indicate the presence of contamination from human or animal waste.
E. coli – E. coli bacteria is a specific indication of contamination from human or animal waste in the well. Its presence is a warning that disease-causing bacteria or viruses may be present in the well water.

Nitrate – Nitrate gets into drinking water from fertilizers, manure, and septic systems. It also occurs naturally. High nitrate levels present a health concern for infants if water is given to babies under 12 months old––mixed with formula or otherwise. Boiling water before feeding doesn’t reduce nitrate levels.. High nitrate levels can also suggest other toxins such as bacteria and pesticides.

Arsenic – Arsenic is naturally occurring in groundwater. It’s linked to various cancers and other health issues.

Manganese – Manganese also occurs in nature and can be present in groundwater. At high enough levels, it may cause brain damage.

Lead – Lead typically gets into drinking water from corroded pipes and plumbing fixtures. If your home was built prior to 1986, it’s more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures, and solder.

To help you get started, MCD partners with various counties and soil and water conservation districts to offer free, confidential well water sampling for nitrate, nitrite, and iron through Test Your Well events.

Test Your Well events are scheduled throughout the year in various counties. The next Test Your Well event will be held on Monday, Mach 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Collinsville Community Center for Butler and Preble county residents.

Find a testing lab and view more resources

For more information about Test Your Well, visit our website or contact me at (937) 223-1278 ext. 3237.

Water Stewardship Summary Report 2012-2019

MCD has released a new report on Water Stewardship that discusses the region’s water challenges and how communities can take action and build resiliency to address those challenges..

Mike Ekberg, MCD manager of water resources monitoring and analysis, and Sarah Hippensteel Hall, manager of watershed partnerships, are currently visiting county commissions and key stakeholders to present the report and ask for input. They are highlighting the work of all three of MCD’s mission areas—flooding protection, water stewardship and recreation—but focusing primarily on water stewardship issues.

Your input through our short survey will help shape our work plan and ensure we are meeting your community’s water concerns and challenges.

Private Wells – Test for a silent killer

By Mike Ekberg, MCD manager for water resources monitoring and analysis

There may a silent killer lurking in private wells used for drinking water. Recent groundwater studies in our region show that drinking water in up to 20 percent of private wells contains high levels of arsenic.

Long-term exposure to arsenic through drinking water is associated with multiple serious health problems. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, linked to cancers of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate gland.

Skin lesions caused by arsenic poisoning

In addition, exposure to arsenic interferes with the immune system, impacts cardiovascular, pulmonary, neurological, and hormonal processes, and may be a contributor to the development of type 2 diabetes.

Elevated arsenic not uncommon in regional groundwater

Arsenic is an element and a minor component of the rock and soil present in local aquifers. Under the right conditions groundwater dissolves arsenic in the aquifer and carries it into wells. Public water systems must test for arsenic. If arsenic levels are high, they are required to remove it.

Unlike public water supplies, private wells usually are not routinely tested.

Drinking water comes from a private well? Get your water tested.

How can you tell if your well water has high arsenic levels in it? You can’t, not without a laboratory test. That’s why I urge well owners who use their wells for drinking water to get their water tested. A laboratory test will typically cost anywhere from $20 to $25. If you use a private well for drinking water, it’s important to test your water for arsenic. If you don’t, you run the risk of consuming drinking water with elevated levels of arsenic.

Removing arsenic

Removing arsenic from drinking water can be complex. In general, there are two major categories of removal systems, point of use (POU) and whole-house. POU arsenic removal systems remove arsenic at a single tap where the water is consumed. POU arsenic removal systems do not remove arsenic throughout the entire house. Whole-house arsenic removal systems remove arsenic at the point where water enters the house, distributing treated water throughout the entire house.

Point of use system installed under a kitchen sink. The system is a single tap reverse osmosis unit.

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey and MCD found the effectiveness of treatment systems in removing arsenic is largely dependent upon the arsenic level in the untreated water. The higher the arsenic level in the well, the less effective arsenic removal systems tended to be. Fortunately, studies of our regional aquifers show that most water has arsenic levels that can be removed with arsenic removal systems that are available on the market.

Currently, there are two labs in our area that will test your water. Call them for fees and more information:

Montgomery County Environmental Laboratory
4257 Dryden Road, Dayton, OH 45439
(937) 781-3016

Pace Analytical Services, Inc. – Dayton
25 Holiday Drive, Englewood, OH 45322
(800) 723-5227

 Other resources to help you understand how to test your well water

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has a website with contact information about state-certified labs that can help with testing. Heidelberg University also offers testing services.

The Ohio State University (OSU) also offers an on-line tool to help you understand the test results. The OSU site offers a lot of information for well owners.