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Louisville’s Response To 'Teflon' In Water Supply

tap water
Creative Commons

Louisville’s drinking water, like many other water systems, has trace levels of PFOA, or C8, a chemical once widely used in consumer products but now known to have negative health effects. Louisville found the chemical in water at amounts well below the limit recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. Still, environmental advocates and many scientists say that level is too high.

The EPA last year set a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for the chemical. EPA data show that Louisville’s water system reported 20 ppt were detected. However, a spokesperson for the Louisville Water Company says more recent data has detected the chemical at much lower levels – 3 to 7 parts per trillion.

“Louisville drinking water is safe. Our scientists do not see this as a public health concern. We have monitored for PFOA the past several years,” said Kelley Smith, vice president of communications for the Louisville Water Company. “We’re well below the health advisory level.”

David Andrews, senior scientist for advocacy group Environmental Working Group, said the European Union standard is at 1 part per trillion.

“There’s significant evidence that there’s potential harm at lower concentrations, but without a legally enforceable limit, that’s part of the reason that utilities are hesitant to move on this,” Andrews said. “And the other part is potential cost of water treatment.”

PFOA, or Perfluorooctanoic acid, is a man-made chemical used as a non-sticking agent. This included use in products like non-stick pans, on metals and for industrial use. Manufacturers entered a voluntary agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and 2015 was the last year it could be used.

The EPA is not legally allowed to set an enforceable limit and is only able to set an advisory level.

“Congress has never given EPA authority to regulate many of these chemicals and it’s likely that because of that, we don’t have the best standards for what should be done,” saidJerome Paulson, an environmental health consultant and former director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health and Environment.

But the chemical stays around for a long time. And recent studies have shown that high levels are associated with higher levels of cholesterol, liver damage, among other things. The science is largely based on studying people who have higher levels in their body, compared to people with lower levels.

“There are no direct human studies of exposure to the PFOA because you’re not going to feed these to human beings and look for outcomes,” Paulson said.

Louisville gets tap water from the Ohio River, pulling in around 126 million gallons a day. Smith said this works to the advantage of the water treatment plants because anything in the river gets diluted. But the Ohio River is also the most polluted river in the U.S., according to the EPA. In 2013, 23 million pounds of chemicals were discharged into the river.

“One of the great things about the river is that there’s a great dissolution factor,” Smith said. “So where we have an incident where something is spilled, because of the enormous flow rate, which can work to the advantage of a utility.”

Louisville uses granulated-activated carbon filtering to help remove PFOA. Paulson recommends a reverse osmosis water filter, which starts around $159.00 online for home use.


Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.