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PFAS found throughout Ohio River in new study

The East End Bridge in eastern Jefferson County during an Ohio River sunset.
The East End Bridge in eastern Jefferson County during an Ohio River sunset.

Researchers have discovered the same man-made chemicals that coat non-stick pans and waterproof clothing are also ubiquitous in the Ohio River -- a drinking water source for more than five million people, according to a new study from the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission. 

The report comes on the heels of revised guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that shows even trace amounts of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in finished drinking water could lead to adverse health impacts that have been linked with cancer and birth defects. 

On Friday, the eight-state commission that monitors water quality along the Ohio River released the results of a 2021 study that looked at PFAS levels at 20 sites along the full length of the Ohio River.

Researchers detected multiple PFAS compounds at every site and frequently found the chemicals at levels that would be concerning if they were found in finished drinking water. However, the EPA does not currently have any similar standards for what should be considered safe in rivers, lakes and other water bodies. 

ORSANCO Executive Director Richard Harrison said the study is a first-of-its-kind approach to understanding the baseline PFAS levels in the Ohio River, but should not be considered to be reflective of finished drinking water. Essentially, the EPA has to set a pollution standard for PFAS in waterways before it can be considered polluted, he said. 

“To be able to characterize it as contamination, you have to have a criteria level that defines what is considered a contaminated level,” he said. “We don’t have that for the Ohio River.”

Changing health standards

PFAS chemicals are sometimes called “forever chemicals'' because their carbon-fluorine chains are among the strongest chemical bonds in nature. They include a class of more than 12,000 chemicals used in everyday products: food wrappers, firefighting foam, carpeting and cosmetics. 

The company 3M developed and began using PFAS chemicals in the 1950s for products like Scotchguard. Today PFAS chemicals are found in soil, air, water, fish tissue, food and in people’s blood

The EPA has taken the closest look at two of the chemicals 3M developed: PFOA and PFOS. Up until last week, the agency had set a lifetime health advisory of a combined 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in finished drinking water.

The new limits for those are magnitudes lower, often below detection limits:

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

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

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

While those limits are only for finished drinking water, they can help contextualize the levels of ORSANCO found in the Ohio River, which serves as a drinking water source for millions.

ORSANCO conducted two rounds of sampling in summer and fall of 2021 across nearly two dozen sites along the roughly thousand-mile long river:

  • Every site had detections of one or more PFAS, though often at trace levels. 
  • At least 8 PFAS compounds were found frequently.
  • PFOA and GenX had the highest concentrations. 

    • PFOA was found a range from 4.88 ppt to 12.90 ppt
    • GenX was detected at nine sites with a range from 5.43 ppt to 32.2 ppt.

‘The more it spreads, the harder it is to clean up’

Ward Wilson advocates for the protection of Kentucky rivers and lakes as the executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance. He said his heart sank when he learned of the new health advisory levels set by the EPA. 

“Now you’ve got that double whammy of ‘they don’t degrade in the environment’ and ‘extremely low levels cause health problems.’ It’s just concerning,” Wilson said. “The more it spreads the harder it is going to be to clean up.”

Wilson said it’s important that the EPA set standards for rivers and streams, as well as for finished drinking water. Harrison, with ORSCANCO, said he expects the EPA to release in-stream standards for PFAS chemicals in late 2024.

The presence of harmful contaminants in the Ohio River does not necessarily mean they are in the drinking water. There are a whole host of biological and chemical treatment processes that allow people to drink tap water from the Ohio River even though communities upriver dump their sewage and other contaminants in the very same waterway. 

Utilities can treat drinking water for PFAS chemicals, but many are don't do so, including Louisville Water Company.

“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,” Kelley Dearing Smith, spokesperson and company vice president, told WFPL last week. 

These solutions include using activated carbon to absorb the chemicals or removing them through reverse osmosis systems. But these systems can be very expensive, particularly for smaller communities with limited resources. To help, the EPA invited states and territories last week to apply for $1 billion to address PFAS chemicals in drinking water, specifically in small and disadvantaged communities. 

A WFPL analysis of 2019 Kentucky for Environmental Protection study showed at least 38 of Kentucky drinking water systems detected levels above the EPA’s new health advisory standards. Researchers found PFAS chemicals most often in drinking water systems that pulled from the Ohio River.

In a separate 2021 study, Kentucky researchers found PFAS chemicals in 90% of the surface waters they sampled, which included every major watershed in the state, according to Kentucky’s Department of Environmental Protection.  


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

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