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‘Forever chemicals’ threaten drinking water across Kentucky

Louisville Water Company's Crescent Hill Reservoir
Louisville Water Company's Crescent Hill Reservoir

For years, environmental officials have said the levels of forever chemicals found in Kentucky drinking water were safe, but on Wednesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revised that risk.

At least 38 drinking water systems in Kentucky, including Louisville, have levels of forever chemicals the EPA now considers to have adverse health impacts, according to a WFPL News analysis. 

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), describe a class of more than 12,000 chemicals used in everyday products: food wrappers, non-stick pans, firefighting foam, carpeting, clothing and cosmetics. 

They’re often called “forever chemicals” because their carbon-fluorine chains are among the strongest chemical bonds in nature and take an extremely long time to break down. Once they’re in an ecosystem, that ecosystem is stuck with them. The chemicals can be found in soil, air, water, fish tissue and even in fruits and vegetables that have grown in PFAS-contaminated soil. 

Ingestion of the chemicals has been linked to birth defects, kidney, testicular and ovarian cancer, as well as damage to the liver, immune system and thyroid, according to the EPA and the Duke University Medical Center.

“These chemicals build up in our bodies, so what’s in your body today is a function of maybe your last 10 years, maybe even more,” said Linda Birnbaum, scientist emeritus and the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “I believe from my extensive reading and study we should aim to reduce exposures as much as possible.”

Even with these known risks, the federal government has not yet regulated the use of PFAS compounds. The lifetime health advisory the EPA issued Wednesday does not have the force of law, and utilities are not required to do anything about the forever chemicals present in their drinking water. 

The EPA said it’s updating the advisory levels to provide technical guidance to federal, state and local governments to address PFAS in drinking water, according to a press release. The agency is working on drafting new regulations but in the meantime, it's encouraging drinking water utilities and government to warn residents about the contamination, and take steps to address it. 

“People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long. That’s why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect concerned families from this pervasive challenge,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in the release. 

PFAS in Kentucky

While Kentucky does not regulate PFAS chemicals, the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet has over the last few years begun researching the extent to which the chemicals are contaminating the state.

They found the chemicals practically everywhere they looked. A 2021 study from Kentucky’s Department of Environmental Protection found PFAS chemicals in 90% of the surface waters they sampled, which included every major watershed in the state. 

That came after a 2019 study for which state experts tested 81 water treatment plants across the state. They found detectable levels of PFAS chemicals in about half of them.  

At least 38 of those systems have levels above the EPA’s new health advisory standards, based on WFPL’s analysis of the 2019 study. The chemicals were found in every single drinking water system they tested along the Ohio River, including Louisville's. 

The state, however, has not always warned residents of the risks of PFAS contamination present in their communities.

In Henderson, Ky., state officials hid from the public the extent of PFAS pollution from Shamrock Technologies, failed to inform residents and businesses near heavily contaminated areas and downplayed the pollution in statements to WFPL.

Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson John Mura said the state is conducting further testing and reviewing environmental databases to identify companies that could be generating PFAS chemicals in Kentucky. 

The state will enforce regulatory limits on PFAS chemicals once they are established by the EPA, he said.

“Our mission is to protect our land, air, and water resources for the health and benefit of all Kentuckians,” Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Goodman said in a written statement.

Contamination in Louisville

The Louisville Water Company has been testing PFAS compounds for about eight years, and in that time it has regularly detected the chemicals at varying levels. 

A four-year average of PFAS samples at Louisville Water demonstrated one chemical far above the EPA’s new lifetime health advisory standards, Dearing Smith said. The state’s 2019 study found two compounds over the health standards.

“What our scientists and our engineering teams are doing right now is evaluating how we are treating the water right now and what we get with an additional treatment strategy,” Dearing Smith said. 

One of the challenges facing drinking water utilities across the country will be detecting the chemicals at the level of the health advisory. 

The previous health advisory set a combined lifetime limit for two chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The new limits for those chemicals are magnitudes lower:

  • .004 ppt for PFOA
  • .02 ppt for PFOS

The EPA also added new guidelines for two other PFAS chemicals:

  • 2,000 ppt for PFBS
  • 10 ppt for HFPO-DA (also known as Gen X)

Dearing Smith said the lowest levels scientists can currently detect is 2 ppt.

“These are microscopic, trace amounts, and that’s the really tough part with this,” she said. 

Treatment options for utilities and residents

At the same time the EPA announced the health standards, it also invited states and territories to apply for $1 billion to address PFAS chemicals in drinking water, specifically in small and disadvantaged communities. 

Utilities and community members can treat drinking water for PFAS chemicals using activated carbon. It effectively absorbs the chemicals as the water passes through, but there are downsides. Carbon needs to be regularly replenished, is less effective for certain types of PFAS and can be cost prohibitive for smaller drinking water systems. Two other, more expensive, options include using reverse osmosis or ion exchange to remove the chemicals.

The Environmental Working Group put together a guide about at-home filtering options. But drinking water isn’t the only source of PFAS contamination. The EPA has a list of recommendations people can take to reduce their risk.  

The EPA is also working on regulations to limit PFAS chemicals in drinking water and plans to release a proposal this fall.

As of October 2021, The Environmental Working Group has documented nearly 3,000 public and private water systems that are known to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals. 

Birnbaum said this is just the tip of the iceberg. The chemicals have traveled to the Arctic and are found in polar bears and whales. Essentially all Americans are contaminated, she said.

“So I would ask ‘why are we still making chemicals that will never go away?’” Birnbaum said. 

Reporter Justin Hicks contributed to this story. 

Correction: A previous version misstated Louisville Water Company's four-year sampling average. The company found only one PFAS compound above the new health advisory standards. Kentucky's Department for Environmental Protection found two PFAS compounds over the new health advisory standards in 2019.

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

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