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Report finds forever chemicals in 90% of Ky. waterways

A new report from Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection suggests forever chemicals are common in Kentucky waterways. 

DEP scientists sampled every major watershed in Kentucky and found PFAS in 90% of the surface waters they sampled. 

PFAS chemicals have been commonly used since the 1940s and are in everything from stain-resistant carpets, nonstick pans to firefighting foam to fast food wrappers. They have been linked to increased risks of cancer, thyroid, reproductive and developmental issues. Studies have even found that PFAS chemicals reduce the effectiveness of vaccines. 

They’re called forever chemicals because the carbon-fluorine chains that make up PFAS are among the strongest chemical bonds in nature.

“They are very resistant to any kind of chemical breakdown so once they are in the environment or the human body they tend to bioaccumulate and be very persistent,” said DEP Commissioner Tony Hatton at a state conference where he discussed PFAS last week.   

The Department for Environmental Protection finished the report in August, but didn’t release it until mid-October. The study follows-up on a 2019 report that found low levels of PFAS in half of the state’s finished drinking water systems. 

State officials selected 40 water monitoring stations across the state’s major watershed and took one sample from each of the stations. PFAS chemicals were detected in 36 of 40 samples, according to the report. Because of the limited sampling, the state considers the study “cursory.”

Most detections were at levels considered low by the Environmental Protection Agency. The highest levels of PFAS were found in the Cumberland River Basin in Christian County and were several times higher than EPA advisory limits. 

The state is planning follow-up water and fish tissue testing for the four locations that exceeded EPA limits.  

“This brings us one step closer to identifying the locations and levels of these chemicals as we continue to work towards a strategy around them that will protect the health and safety of Kentuckians,” Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Goodman said in a statement. 

The EPA has set a lifetime health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion for PFAS chemicals. There are currently no state or federal regulations limiting PFAS pollution, but the Biden administration has recently rolled out a roadmap for what regulations could look like. 

Environmental advocates say PFAS pollution is ubiquitous across the country and will impact health for years to come. 

Kentucky’s largest ongoing PFAS cleanup is taking place in Henderson County where Shamrock Technologies has polluted groundwater with extremely high levels of forever chemicals. 


Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.