Part II — PFAS and our water

In Part I, we looked at what per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS, are and why you should care. In Part II, we look at the impact to our drinking water.

Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances or PFAS are a group of manufactured chemicals widely used in consumer products such as cookware, pizza boxes, stain repellants, and fire-fighting foams. These chemicals gained widespread attention nationally as well as locally when they began to be detected in the drinking water of some public water systems.

New analytical methods open a Pandora’s Box
Over the past couple of decades, new analytical techniques have emerged that make it possible to detect contaminants in water at concentrations as low as parts per trillion. The emergence of these new analytical methods led to the discovery of previously undetectable contaminants in natural waters as well as treated drinking water.

Because of these new capabilities, the scientific community began to discover many of the chemicals that are used in common household consumer products, as well as in pharmaceuticals, were also present at low concentrations in many rivers, streams, and aquifers all over the world. Some of these chemicals were also detected in treated drinking water.

PFAS was one of the groups of these chemicals detected in both natural waters and treated drinking water. The discovery of previously undetectable contaminants in drinking water has prompted questions by public water system operators nationwide. How do you communicate health risks for a contaminant when there is no regulated drinking water standard with which to compare? Does the public expect that none of these compounds will be present in drinking water? How does everyday exposure to these compounds from consumer products compare to exposure from drinking water?

PFAS present in the waters of the Miami Valley
PFAS is here, too. Rivers and streams in the Miami Valley likely contain low levels of some PFAS compounds. Studies have shown that most municipal wastewater effluent contains low levels of PFAS. (Margot, J., Ross, L., Barry, D.A., and Holliger, C., 2015)

A study conducted by MCD in 2010 and 2011 found low levels of the PFAS compound PFOS present in 22 out of 31 river, stream, and aquifer sampling sites. The same study also found PFOS in two out of two wastewater treatment plant outfalls sampled.

More recently, PFAS compounds were detected in the treated drinking water at Wright Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) and at the City of Dayton. According to the Dayton Daily News (March 11, 2020), the PFAS is thought to have originated from the use of foams during fire-fighting training activities. PFAS from the foams may have leached into the underlying aquifer and traveled to nearby water supply wells. PFAS concentrations at WPAFB were high enough that a granular activated carbon filtration system was required to reduce concentrations to acceptable levels. Meanwhile the levels of PFAS in the Dayton public water system have remained low enough that additional treatment has not been necessary.

Federal and state regulatory agencies struggle to coordinate PFAS response
Determining consistent health guidelines for levels of PFAS in drinking water has been a struggle for federal and state regulatory agencies. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) published its PFAS action plan in February 2019. Under the plan, USEPA committed to developing maximum contaminant levels for two commonly detected PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS. The agency will also designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances and begin a national monitoring program to examine the occurrence of PFAS compounds in drinking water.

Prior to the federal PFAS action plan, some states elected to set their own drinking water standards for PFAS as public pressure to do something about these contaminants mounted. Ohio EPA adopted the USEPA health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. Ohio also developed a PFAS action plan for drinking water in December 2019. The objectives in include:

  • Gather and provide sampling data from specific types of public water systems to determine if PFAS is present in raw and finished drinking water.
  • Assist private water system owners with guidelines and resources to identify and respond to potential PFAS contamination.
  • Establish action levels for drinking water systems in Ohio to aid in appropriately responding to PFAS contamination for the protection of public health.

More information on the Ohio PFAS action plan for drinking water is available at https://epa.ohio.gov/pfas.

In PFAS Part III we’ll look at strategies for dealing with PFAS.

References
Margot, J., Ross, L., Barry, D.A., and Holliger, C., 2015. A review of the fate of
micropollutants in wastewater treatment plants. 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.,
WIREs Water 2015. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1090.

Ismail Turay, Jr., (2020), ‘Ohio EPA to begin testing for ‘forever’ chemicals in drinking water,’ Dayton Daily News, 11 March.

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.

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.

“Think” theme for Groundwater Awareness Week, March 10-16

By Sarah Hippensteel Hall, Ph.D., manager for watershed partnerships

Many of us never think twice about groundwater—where it comes from, how much there is, or how to protect it. We just turn on the spigot and water flows.

But maybe it’s time to think for a minute about this amazing resource that keeps us all alive, literally.

Think is the theme for this year’s National Groundwater Awareness Week (#GWAW), March 10-16. Groundwater Awareness Week is an annual observance highlighting responsible development, management, and use of groundwater. The Think theme urges each of us to consider ways we can protect this most valuable natural resource.

So Think about not running the water while you brush your teeth. Or Think about getting that leaking faucet fixed. Think about the farmers that rely on groundwater to grow the food you eat. And Think about having your well inspected to protect your drinking water system.

Here are few steps you can take to ensure your family’s health and protect our region’s groundwater:

  • Support better land use planning that will protect water and maximize economic opportunity. MCD can help communities that want to integrate water protection into their land use plans, zoning code, and subdivision regulations.

 

Did you know?

  • Approximately 132 million Americans rely on groundwater for drinking water.
  • Groundwater is used for irrigation, livestock, manufacturing, mining, thermoelectric power, and several additional purposes, making it one of the most widely used and valuable natural resources we have.
  • Americans use 79.6 billion gallons of groundwater each day. Groundwater in the Great Miami River Watershed supplied people with 6 billion gallons of water in 2016.
  • Groundwater is 20 to 30 times larger than all U.S. lakes, streams, and rivers combined.
  • 44 percent of the U.S. population depends on groundwater for its drinking water supply, including 2.3 million people in southwest Ohio.
  • More than 13.2 million households have their own well, representing 34 million people.

As we approach National Groundwater Awareness Week, MCD is proud to have earned the distinction of “Groundwater Protector.” The award is presented to various groups for taking steps to conserve and protect groundwater.

MCD works to protect and improve the quantity and quality of water available to people living and working within the Great Miami River Watershed. Through research, educational programs, funding, and community events, MCD’s work on water stewardship issues provides citizens with the information they need to make safe, sustainable decisions regarding their water. MCD provides insight to elected officials and community leaders, inspiring stewardship at the local, regional, and national levels. Since 1915, the Miami Conservancy District has been committed to the protection, preservation, and promotion of water and water-related causes.

MCD participates in #GWAW to raise awareness of the critical importance of groundwater to healthy communities and a thriving economy.

Please visit bit.ly/MCDstateofthewater for more facts about our groundwater.

The National Ground Water Association encourages everyone to become official “groundwater protectors” by taking steps to conserve and protect the resource. Businesses, individuals, educators, students, federal agencies, cities, associations, and everyone in between can ask to be added to NGWA’s groundwater protector list through its website or on social media. Have an awesome story to tell? Send it to NGWA and they might highlight your efforts.

Well owners — is your water safe to drink?

By Mike Ekberg, Manager for Water Resources Monitoring and Analysis

Hey well owners, when’s the last time you had your drinking water tested? If you’re like many well owners in the United States, you probably have never tested your water. Why should you bother? You have plenty of water and it tastes good, right?

If you want to be sure your drinking water is safe, you need to get 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:
E. coli – E. coli bacteria is a specific indication of fecal contamination in the well. Its presence is a warning that disease-causing bacteria may have entered the well.

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 the water is mixed with formula. 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 nitrates, nitrites, and iron through Test Your Well events.

Get your water sampled this month
Miami County residents can attend on Monday, Nov. 13, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Miami East High School cafeteria, 3925 N. State Route 589 in Casstown. Enter door #12 with parking on the east side.

Montgomery County residents can attend on Tuesday, Nov. 14, from 4 to 6 p.m. Montgomery County Environmental Lab 4257 Dryden Road, Moraine, OH 45439

Find a testing lab and view more resources

Low levels of artificial sweeteners present in the aquifer, but what’s safe?

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

MCD staff recently found artificial sweeteners in five of 12 groundwater samples. The samples were collected from monitoring wells installed in the buried valley aquifer. This is further proof that many of the chemicals we flush down a toilet, rinse down a sink, or apply to our lawns and gardens ultimately end up in our rivers, streams, and aquifers.

It should be noted that none of the wells sampled in the study are used for drinking water. MCD uses its monitoring wells in the buried valley aquifer to act as a network of sentinels. Samples from the wells provide information on human impacts as well as natural changes in the quality of water over time.

MCD found artificial sweeteners in several groundwater samples (in monitoring wells, not drinking water wells), providing further proof that what we flush down the toilet and rinse down the sink makes its way to our rivers, streams and aquifers.

Artificial sweeteners in groundwater is a concern for two reasons: First, their presence is an indication that human sewage is flowing into the aquifer. Human sewage contains low levels of many contaminants that pass through the sewage treatment process and enter into natural waters. Second, artificial sweeteners are considered to be potential endocrine disruptors because they may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and harm people and animals.

The endocrine system is a chemical messaging system within the human body that regulates organ function. Fortunately, the artificial sweeteners were present in the groundwater at very low concentrations – parts per trillion.

These “endocrine disruptors.” as they are known, are present in many products we use every day, including plastic bottles, detergents, flame retardants, cosmetics, and pesticides. Among the other chemicals MCD found in the samples were:

  • Bisphenol A (BPA), a compound found in plastics.
  • DEET, an active ingredient in insect repellant.
  • The herbicides atrazine, metolachlor, simazine, and sulfometuron methyl.
  • Meclofenamic acid, a drug used for joint and muscular pain and arthritis.
  • Propylparaben, an ingredient in many cosmetics.

BPA is becoming a big concern because human exposure to the compound is widespread. Some animal studies report effects on fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.

None of the chemicals found exceeded any human health-based standards. The jury is still out, however, on what the standards should be for some of these chemicals. It’s possible that new standards will be set once we better understand how these chemicals affect the human body.

If we want clean, safe water, we may need to support investments in advanced water treatment technologies to remove potentially harmful compounds from water.

 

Well Owners – Is your drinking water safe?

Contamination is more common than you think

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

Hey well owners, when’s the last time you had your drinking water tested? If you’re like many well owners in the United States, you probably have never tested your water. Why should you bother? You have plenty of water and it tastes good, right?

If you want to be sure your drinking water is safe, you need to get 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 failing 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:

E. coliE. coli bacteria is a specific indication of fecal contamination in the well. Its presence is a warning that disease-causing bacteria may have entered the well.

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 the water is mixed with formula. 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.

 

Get help with testing
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has a website with contact information about state-certified labs that can help with testing. Contact a lab and have the staff help you collect water samples and explain the results.

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

Bigger problem than you think
Recent studies show that private well contamination is not rare. A 2009 United States Geological Survey study of more than 2,000 private wells found about 23 percent of the wells had problems. More recently, MCD surveyed 107 private wells. Twenty percent of those wells had unsafe levels of arsenic in the water.

The need for testing is real. Now go out and get your water tested!

 

Could a drinking water crisis be headed our way?

Water quality crises are becoming more common, from algal toxins in Toledo to lead in Flint, Michigan; Sebring, Ohio and other communities. Could those crises happen here?

It’s possible—but not likely—because this region pulls almost all of its drinking water from groundwater stored in the buried valley aquifer, not from rivers and streams as these highlighted cities do. Why is groundwater better?

Groundwater offers several benefits over surface water (rivers and streams) for drinking.

  • Treating groundwater so it can be used for drinking water can be simpler than treating surface water. Groundwater may only need to be disinfected to kill bacteria and viruses, while surface water must be disinfected and filtered for other pollutants.
  • Groundwater in our region tends to be alkaline and not as corrosive to pipes as natural waters from other parts of the state.
  • Groundwater is commonly ‘softened’ during treatment which tends to reduce the buildup of scale on pipes and plumbing fixtures.
  • Surface water can be affected by polluted runoff from many different land uses including rural and urban land activities. This runoff can include bacteria and chemicals that are difficult or costly to treat.
  • Algal blooms, which are fed by polluted runoff flowing into rivers and streams, do not occur in groundwater because algae cannot live underground.
  • Spills of toxins or other contaminants into rivers and streams can flow downstream quickly for hundreds of miles, potentially reaching the intakes to water supply. Groundwater typically moves slowly, so there is time to prepare or to clean up contamination before it reaches water supply wells.

Protecting groundwater is key

The key is protecting groundwater and preventing contamination. Contaminated groundwater tends to stay contaminated for a long time. Once groundwater becomes contaminated, it’s often very difficult and costly to cleanup.

Advances in groundwater cleanup technologies have been made over the last several decades, but groundwater quality often can’t be restored to previous conditions.

Fortunately, for those of us who live, work and play in the Miami Valley, we can rely on the buried valley aquifer system to provide us with a reliable source of drinking water. Provided, that is, we are willing to do the things necessary to be good stewards of this resource and protect it for our future.

Communities can help

Every community in the Miami Valley has an important role in keeping our water clean and safe.

Make sure that your community has an up-to-date and thorough source water protection plan that is implemented. A source water protection plan protects your community’s water supply.

Communities can protect water by updating their development policies including zoning, codes, ordinances, and subdivision regulations. There are easy and economical ways to do a better job of developing land while protecting water.

Municipalities can also take steps to help residents learn how to ensure the quality of our groundwater. Educate your residents:

  • About the dangers of pouring household cleaners, paint and other chemicals onto the ground, and share information about proper disposal.
  • How to report spills.
  • How to use pesticides and fertilizers sparingly.
  • How to carefully change the oil in their cars, avoiding spills that could make their way to the storm drain. Ensure your community has an oil drop off program.
  • How to responsibly dispose of unwanted medication, and provide prescription drop-off events.

USGS and MCD groundwater quality findings similar

By Mike Ekberg, MCD Water Resources Manager

Sampling conducted by the Miami Conservancy District is consistent with a recently-released report by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS Circular 1352, 2014). The study assessed groundwater quality in more than 1,000 wells in aquifers in the northern United States. The study examined the presence of contaminants in groundwater which, if used for drinking, could be a potential concern for human health. The Great Miami River Buried Valley Aquifer system in southwest Ohio lies within the study area and supplies drinking water to 1.6 million people in and around Dayton and Cincinnati Ohio.

aps map

Great Miami River
Buried Valley Aquifer

The major findings of the USGS report include:

  • 22 percent of wells sampled contained at least one contaminant at a concentration of potential concern for human health. (The results from a 2011 MCD study on arsenic concentrations in groundwater [MCD Report 2011-06] suggest that approximately 1 in 5 residential wells have arsenic greater than 10 micrograms per liter.)
  • Concentrations of nitrate and pesticides in groundwater were low in fine-grained sediment even in areas of intensive agriculture. (MCD studies [MCD Reports 03-14 and 05-04] also show that concentrations of nitrate in the Great Miami River Buried Valley Aquifer system tend to be low where fine-grained soils overlie the aquifer, but are often elevated in areas where coarse grained soils are often present, such as floodplain areas along the Great Miami River channel and its major tributaries.)
  • High concentrations of “nuisance” constituents—those that affect the aesthetic quality of the water but are not necessarily a health concern—were found in 75 percent of samples. (MCD research from studies in 2005 and 2008 [MCD Reports 06-03 and 09-09] also show an abundance of “nuisance” constituents such as hardness and iron.) The prevalence of nuisance contaminants can reduce groundwater’s desirability as drinking water if not treated.
  • Chloride concentrations in groundwater are increasing in many urban areas. In recent years, there have been several cases of groundwater contamination in Ohio due to improper storage of road salt. MCD participated on a workgroup with the Ohio Water Resource Council to draft a guidance document for proper salt storage.

Comparing the results from the USGS study with the results from MCD studies verifies our local findings and confirms that the challenges our region faces in preserving our groundwater resources are not unique to southwest Ohio.

The Great Miami River Buried Valley Aquifer system is an abundant natural resource, but some contaminants exist. Private well-owners should have their well water tested for contaminants including nitrates and arsenic.

Impacts from the use of fertilizers, such as nitrate, and road salt show the need for sound water resource management practices to minimize contamination of drinking water and ensure that groundwater remains healthy.

US map sand and gravel aquifers of alluvial and glacial origin

US map of sand and gravel aquifers of alluvial and glacial origin