Recent tap-water tests in more than three dozen locations across the country found toxic “forever chemicals” at most of the sites, including Columbus and Cincinnati, according to a nonprofit environmental organization.
In Columbus, a total of nine forever chemicals were found by the Environmental Working Group, totaling 16.4 parts per trillion of perperfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. For years, the chemicals were used by companies to make nonstick cookware, stain-resistant and waterproof fabrics, food packaging and more.
The problem is the chemicals don’t break down, which means they stay around forever, including in human blood or organs, once consumed.
The highest forever chemical content found in the Columbus sample was perfluorobutyrate at 4.8 parts per trillion. PFBA is a breakdown product of other forever chemicals.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses a guideline of 70 parts per trillion of PFAS as a maximum allowable amount.
However, researchers argue that anything more than 1 part per trillion can cause harmful health effects. The chemicals are proved to increase the risk of cancer, reduce fertility in women, interfere with hormones, increase cholesterol levels and negatively affect the immune system and development in infants and children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To lower the amount of these man-made chemicals to 1 part per trillion would likely cost the city of Columbus tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars, said Matt Steele, water supply treatment coordinator for the Columbus Public Utilities Division of Water.
“We’re concerned about public health and maintaining compliance with the regulations,” Steele said. “If these are high levels, then we’re definitely concerned, and we’ll do what it takes to address those.”
In Cincinnati, the amount of PFAS detected in its public drinking water was 11.2 parts per trillion from a total of five chemicals. The highest chemical detected was 4.8 parts per trillion of GenX, which DuPont de Nemours Inc. used to make Teflon, replacing another chemical that had a longer chemical chain.
Greater Cincinnati Water Works did not respond to questions. However, its website said it has been monitoring GenX since 2017 “to ensure there were not high levels of that compound in the water from the DuPont plant. ... GCWW will continue to monitor GenX to evaluate its level in the river and to ensure that this compound is removed effectively through the treatment processes.”
On average, the environmental group detected about six to seven chemicals in each water system tested. It tested for a total of 30 chemicals.
“They got a couple of different ones that (Columbus) didn’t have before,” Steele said. “I would love to have everything below detection but they’re not. (The levels are) not near any of the health advisory levels or the EPA action levels.”
In the past five years, Columbus has spent more than $400 million in water-system upgrades and to expand capacity. To remove forever chemicals would require additional technology, such as granular activated carbon, ion exchange or reverse osmosis.
Out of 44 water systems tested by the environmental group, only one – in Meridian, Mississippi – had no detectable PFAS, and two other locations had PFAS below 1 part per trillion. The water systems with the highest amount of forever chemicals detected were Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City.
Scientists believe PFAS likely are detectable in all major U.S. water supplies – almost certainly in all that use surface water. In Columbus, most of the city’s drinking water is surface water.
Some states already have set or proposed limits or guidelines for PFAS in drinking water. Gov. Mike DeWine ordered that 90% of the state’s drinking water be tested for the chemicals. Testing could begin as soon as February, according to a spokesman for the governor.
As attorney general, DeWine filed two lawsuits against companies on behalf of the state seeking funds to clean up contamination from PFAS, as well as restitution.
Andrews said he thinks the environmental group’s test results highlight the need for additional testing of all water supplies.
“The action really needs to happen in terms of identifying where the pollution is ... and making sure there’s no ongoing releases to the water,” he said. “And in places where there are higher levels of contamination – that there’s adequate filtration to remove these chemicals.”