WATCHDOG REPORT: Traces of harmful chemicals reported in Valley drinking water
They are called "Forever Chemicals" for a reason.
These chemicals are found in many places, from common household cleaning products to the water we drink. 21 News found the Mahoning Valley's biggest water supplier has chemical levels over five times higher than the advisory limit set by the U.S. EPA, as emerging-health concern over these contaminants is expected to bring a federal drinking water regulation.
"We're all exposed," Dr. Linda Birnbaum, former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a federal scientist of over 30 years said, "All of us."
Birnbaum said there are about 12,000 different kinds of forever chemicals, also known as the umbrella term "PFAS." These synthetic contaminants were widely produced for years, ramping up from the 60s to the 80s, she said. What makes PFAS dangerous is its unique, persistent properties.
There is currently no federal or statewide regulation of PFAS in drinking water.
"They are used in electronic products, they are used in many kinds of waterproofing products. They are in over 200,000 different kinds of products that we're using in commerce," she said, "All of these different uses have resulted in contamination of water throughout our country."
Birnbaum said the useful PFAS properties, like water resistance, have made the chemicals a helpful tool in manufacturing for years, but experts are worried it's unnecessary and doing more harm than good.
"Every time you wash your clothes, if you have stain-repellent material in your clothes, some of that gets into the water from your clothes-washing and that ends up going into your wastewater treatment plants," Birnbaum said, regarding one of the many ways PFAS contaminates water supply, "These chemicals are not removed in your water treatment and they get into your lakes, rivers and streams."
An extensively used forever chemical under the PFAS umbrella is called "PFOS," and while Birnbaum said intentional PFOS production ended over 20 years ago, the problem is, forever chemicals never go away.
"There is no easy way to get rid of them once they are created," she said.
Birnbaum said emerging studies on forever chemicals have been linked to the very diseases we're seeing more of.
"The increase in cancer, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease, and developmental effect. Type 2 Diabetes...obesity," she said, "All of these things have been associated with exposure to this class of chemicals."
She said PFOS data also shows an association with impacts on the immune, reproductive, and endocrine systems and among others.
"There is a litany of adverse effects that have been seen in experimental animals, in wildlife, and we have observed in more highly exposed [human] populations, some of these effects as well."
According to the CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, research has suggested exposure to PFOS "from today's consumer products is usually low, especially when compared to exposures to contaminated drinking water."
The Ohio EPA reports 58 out of over 1,500 tested water treatment plants in the state found PFAS contaminants in the water, and one of those plants is the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District.
The chemicals are measured by "parts per trillion" which is very little, but Birnbaum along with the U.S. EPA said it's the long-term exposure of PFAS, plus the potential of unknown exposure we get that's worrisome.
It was 2016 when the U.S. EPA changed its recommended PFOS health advisory from 70 to 0.02 ppt (parts per trillion) and listed a "minimum reporting level" of 4 ppt.
"It was letting the industry know that these chemicals are a problem, and there really may not be a safe level," she said, "I THINK THE IMPORTANT THING IS THE CONTINUOUS EXPOSURE THAT WE MAY HAVE from DRINKING WATER AS WELL AS THE FACT THAT IT BUILDS UP."
The Mahoning Valley Sanitary District reports levels of 10.9 ppt of PFOS, in addition to another forever chemical called PFHXS, measured at 5.55 PPT, which is even more persistent in the body and similarly toxic, according to Birnbaum.
"We're not exactly sure where the source of the PFAS is coming from," MVSD Superintendent of Purification Jon Jamison said, "but if it's a forever chemical... they have had fires in the area, in the watershed... it could be coming from septic systems. It's really hard for us to tell."
Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA tells 21 News in a statement, "EPA’s goal is to propose a PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) in the coming weeks. The draft proposed rule is currently undergoing interagency review, and EPA will issue the proposed rule for public comment when it clears the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The agency anticipates finalizing the rule by the end of 2023."
If MVSD is forced to comply with stricter standards, Jamison said it could be costly.
Jamison said could not provide figures on what the expenses could be until MVSD learns what work is needed to update water treatment, but he said depending on how much state funding is available, it is possible that water rates could increase.
"Anything's possible, but that's gonna be driven by recommendations from a consultant, and then we're going to have to review those recommendations," he said, "The best thing moving forward is to ensure we have safe and potable water, that's ultimately why we're here. The water has to be safe and we have to be in compliance with the Ohio EPA and U.S. EPA."
He added because it's an emerging contaminant, experts "are still doing very active research of how to treat it."
Ohio EPA said although there is currently no regulation, "the federal Health Advisory Levels (HALs) for PFAS in drinking water are important to help against long-term public health risks," adding Ohio will adopt new standards "when the U.S. EPA sets a maximum contaminant level for PFAS."
Until then, Birnbaum said concerned researchers are "eagerly" waiting for the EPA's federal Office of Water to propose the Maximum Contaminant Levels for drinking water throughout the country.
"I think it's important to realize it's not just coming into our bodies as water," Birnbaum said, "But it's coming to us from the food that we eat and inhalation, there's some that are present in the air that we inhale."
Birnbaum said if anyone is concerned about PFAS exposure from drinking water, they can reduce the risk of these chemicals by drinking water from a built-in refrigerator filter or consuming bottled water.
The U.S. EPA advises those with questions on PFAS in drinking water, to click here for more information.