Study: toxins pervasive in drinking water

Illinois may not have the worst contamination of PFAS “forever chemicals,” according to a new study by the Environmental Working Group, but the toxic compounds are present in water systems and groundwater in Peoria, Galesburg, Bloomington and the Quad Cities. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the legislature recognize the danger, and some are pressing for reforms.

New tests confirm that drinking water in dozens of U.S. cities contain PFAS at levels above what independent experts consider safe.

“PFAS” is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Chemicals in this group are in products like nonstick pans, waterproof jackets, firefighting foam and some personal-care items like sunscreens and shampoos.

“Results confirm that the number of Americans exposed to PFAS from contaminated tap water has been dramatically underestimated by previous studies, both from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and EWG’s own research,” says EWG’s report. “EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S.”

The region’s major water-system operator, Illinois American, says they don’t have any locations providing water with results that exceed the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for key PFAS.

Illinois American Water External Affairs Manager Karen Cotton told Community Word that the company has collected samples for PFAS compounds “to have a better understanding of our water quality and to be prepared at such time as EPA takes action on these additional compounds.”

However, that federal Maximum Contaminant Level of 70 ppt is too high, according to independent studies suggesting PFAS are dangerous at lower levels. The Environmental Working Group considers only concentrations of 1 part per trillion or lower to be safe.

PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because once released into the environment they don’t break down but build up in animals’ blood and organs. Exposure to PFAS increases the risk of cancer, harms fetal development and reduces the effectiveness of vaccines.

“PFAS pose a serious health threat to our communities,” Raoul said. “Federal legislation and financial assistance are urgently needed to fight this contamination and give residents peace of mind.”

Raoul and 21 other state attorneys general urged Congress to pass legislation to aid states in addressing the public health threat of such toxic chemicals.

Also in Springfield, State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, this winter introduced a measure reforming Maximum Contaminant Levels, and it’s currently in the Rules Committee.

EWG’s tap-water samples, collected from 44 locations in 31 states and the District of Columbia through December, were analyzed by an accredited independent laboratory for 30 different PFAS.

Besides the Quad Cities, other Midwest cities where PFAS were detected include Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City and St. Louis.

Processes to commercially produce PFAS were developed in the 1940s. In the 1950s, 3M started using them in products to repel water, resist heat, etc. One PFAS was formerly used in Teflon, and another in Scotch Guard. For decades, 3M and Dupont, which used PFAS, concealed evidence that the chemicals were hazardous (evidence upon which the 2019 film “Dark Waters” was based).

The EPA was alerted to the problem in 2001 but in almost 20 years has failed to set an enforceable, nationwide legal limit. In 2016, the EPA issued a national health advisory for both compounds and established the non-enforceable limit of 70 ppt.

Despite the revelations, President Trump and his GOP supporters oppose new regulations to reduce public exposure to PFAS. House Democrats recently passed the PFAS Action Act of 2019 (HR 535), which would direct the EPA to establish better standards for drinking water and require polluters to assist in cleanup.

Twenty-four Republicans supported the bill, but area Congressmen Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, voted against it.

The bill is expected to stall in the GOP-controlled Senate, and “if H.R. 535 were presented to the President, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill,” the White House said Jan. 7.

Instead, Trump’s EPA is implementing a PFAS “action plan” that environmental groups say does little to address widespread contamination.

“I think the fact that EPA only has a [health advisory] speaks volumes to the issue in terms of the lack of federal leadership,” said EWG toxicologist Dave Andrews.

“Policymakers should set science-based drinking water standards for PFAS in tap water, reduce ongoing PFAS discharges into water supplies, end non-essential uses of PFAS, require reporting of ongoing PFAS discharges into water supplies, ensure that PFAS wastes are properly disposed of, and expand PFAS monitoring,” EWG says.

Coping with this contamination may be difficult and expensive because municipal water systems must be updated with new filters to remove the chemicals from drinking water. Options for drinking-water treatment technologies to remove PFAS include reverse osmosis, ion-exchanged and granular activated carbon (GAC).

“The PFAS issue is one of the most rapidly changing landscapes in drinking water contamination,” Illinois American’s Cotton says. “American Water has invested time and effort on our own independent research, as well as engaging with other experts in the field to understand PFAS occurrence, fate and transport in the environment. We are also actively assessing treatment technologies that can effectively remove PFAS from drinking water, because we believe that investment in research is critical for addressing this issue.”

As for residences, “the most effective choice for in-home treatment of PFAS-tainted tap water is a reverse osmosis system that combines an activated carbon filter with a reverse osmosis membrane,” EWG says.

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