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Kentucky conducts 2nd round of drinking water testing for PFAS chemicals, as EPA proposes new standards

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

Kentucky is conducting a second round of drinking water testing for chemicals found in non-stick cookware as the U.S. Environmental Agency proposes new standards.

The western Kentucky city of Henderson is one of the few, if not the only, community in the state already treating its drinking water for the presence of so-called ‘forever chemicals,’ but that could change under new drinking water standards proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA proposed the first-ever national standards for six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals, last week. If finalized later this year, drinking water utilities across the country would be required to monitor for the chemicals, notify the public if levels exceed the standards and reduce contamination as necessary.

Henderson Water Utility has seen success treating drinking water for the chemicals using activated carbon. But Director of Operations Kevin Roberts says it’s expensive and smaller water utilities are likely going to struggle to afford the costs associated with meeting the new standards.

“[The new standards are] stringent, there’s no doubt about that,” Roberts said. “And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, a water utility bringing in water and treating it, that’s just one source out of a thousand different sources.”

PFAS belongs to a family of synthetic chemicals in use since the 1940s. Today, they are ubiquitous in our lives. They’re in food wrappers, non-stick pans, firefighting foam, carpeting, cosmetics and clothing. The strong chemical bonds that make them ideal for waterproofing and stain resistance also make them incredibly resistant to breaking down in nature, hence the name “forever chemicals.”

PFAS chemicals have been found throughout the Ohio River. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet found the chemicals in 90% of rivers and lakes they sampled and in every fish they tested.

In 2019, state experts tested 81 water treatment plants across the state. They found detectable levels of PFAS chemicals in about half of them. Last week, the cabinet told LPM News the state is now conducting a second round of drinking water testing.

“With the new national primary drinking water standards for six PFAS substances proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the [Department for Environmental Protection] will continue to work with water utilities across Kentucky to ensure that Kentuckians’ health is protected,” Energy and Environment Cabinet Spokesperson John Mura said in a statement.

The EPA has determined two of the most well-researched chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, are likely to cause kidney and liver cancer. The agency says there are no safe levels for those two chemicals in drinking water but set the standards at the lowest detectable threshold, four parts per trillion.

A 2012 medical study of nearly 70,000 people in Parkersburg, West Virginia, found exposure to PFAS likely contributed to birth defects, cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and high cholesterol.

Despite these health risks, there are no state or federal laws regulating PFAS.

However, health experts emphasize that just because these chemicals can be present in our water, food and clothing doesn’t mean that everyone will see the worst, if any, poor health outcomes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that PFAS blood levels have significantly declined since 2002 alongside a decline in the production and use of PFOS and PFOA.

Treating PFAS in drinking water

The Community of Henderson, Kentucky, has been more wary of PFAS than most in Kentucky as the result of chemical contamination from a Teflon recycler with three facilities in the city. The company, Shamrock Technologies, released PFAS in the air and dumped contaminated water into a ditch nearby the facility.

The resulting pollution exceeded now outdated federal health advisories by nearly 5,000,000 times the standard — rivaling contamination found at EPA Superfund sites on military installations.

Henderson has been using activated carbon to treat its water the last few years, but began regularly testing for PFAS last year when the EPA released new health guidance on lifetime exposure limits.

“And what we found is that we did have a significant impact in reduction,” Roberts said.

But there are challenges. Henderson pulls its water from the Ohio River, similar to Louisville and Cincinnati. The levels they’ve seen in the raw river water are low, but they’re also inconsistent. Testing can take weeks to come back from the lab so Henderson is left treating the water with activated carbon for levels that were found in the river weeks earlier.

“We haven’t really been able to pinpoint exactly how much powdered activated carbon it takes to remove a single part per trillion,” he said.

Meanwhile, the treatment has significantly increased costs. Roberts estimated the utility used to spend around $40,000 on powdered activated carbon. Now, he expects it could cost the utility $500,000 per year to use the amounts necessary for treatment.

That’s why Roberts believes the powdered activated carbon is a good near-term solution but a poor long-term solution.

“It’s simply too expensive,” he said. “There will be a lot of smaller utilities that won't be able to mitigate this. They will have to have funding. They will have to have help.”

And that’s just to treat drinking water. Roberts said he believes the costs could be even greater if wastewater companies are required to remove PFAS, or, if the EPA decides to consider treating some PFAS as hazardous waste — a rule currently under consideration.

Regardless, Roberts believes funding is going to be necessary to both treat PFAS contamination, and to educate the public about PFAS chemicals.

“The general public has a hard time understanding part per trillion and health guidelines,” he said. “There’s going to need to be a pretty robust public education drive.”

Last month, theEPA announced Kentucky will receive more than $22 million to manage PFAS in drinking water and in rural and disadvantaged communities. The funding comes from The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which invests $5 billion across the country over five years to help communities managing chemical contamination.

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

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