As you may have heard, the U.S. Geological Survey recently released a report on the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in West Virginia’s water. The study came at the behest of the state Legislature and was done in conjunction with several West Virginia agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection.
If “PFAS” is ringing a bell, it may be because we’ve addressed it in this space before — or because you watched the movie “Dark Waters,” about the DuPont plant near Parkersburg that poisoned residents for decades.
“PFAS” is an umbrella term that encapsulates many related chemicals that are used in a variety of industries and products, from pots and pans (think “non-stick”) to clothes to carpets and rugs to food wrappers and even fire extinguisher foam. Unfortunately, PFAS tend to leach from their original materials into the surrounding environment. They can leach from a pan or wrapper into your food. They can leach from an article of clothing tossed into a landfill into the surrounding soil. They can leach from a carpet into the surrounding air. And once they’re in the environment, they don’t go away. Instead, they accumulate: every time you eat contaminated food, drink contaminated water or breathe contaminated air, you are adding to the concentration of PFAS in your body.
It’s believed PFAS can be found in virtually every person’s body. These forever chemicals (particularly perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) have been linked to a variety of health issues, including but not limited to, kidney and testicular cancer, immune suppression, neurodevelopmental disorders, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis and decreased fertility.
In 2016, the EPA set a health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (which can also be measured as 70 nanograms per liter) for PFAS in any given environmental sample. Using that limit, the USGS sampled 279 public water systems (groundwater and surface water) in West Virginia to measure the presence of PFAS.
The study found about 24% of raw water sources had at least one PFAS present. Unsurprisingly, the highest levels and the greatest number of individual PFAS could be found along the Ohio River. Three groundwater sites in Wood County (where Parkersburg is located) had PFAS present at greater than 70 ng/L — one source registered 1,540 ng/L of PFOA; two of the three had seven or more types of PFAS present while the third had only three to four. The other two hot spots sporting over 70 ng/L were in Marshall County and Berkeley County (seemingly near Martinsburg).
In our area, only one place registered over the reporting level of 3 ng/L — a groundwater source seemingly near Fairview in Marion County. It measured 4.8 ng/L for PFOA.
The remaining raw water sources in Monongalia, Marion and Preston counties all registered below the reporting level. That sounds like good news. However, the EPA has changed the health advisory limits for several PFAS since the samples were collected. This past June, the EPA lowered the advised limits of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water from 70 ppt (or ng/L) to 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt — significantly less than the study’s threshold of 3 ng/L.
Part of the reason the EPA lowered the suggested intake so much is because we know PFAS accumulate and compound in our bodies, and we’re coming to understand that they can have serious impacts on our health, even in small quantities.
PFAS are everywhere and there is little that we, as individuals, can do to solve the problem, except perhaps be more conscientious consumers. What we can do, however, is lobby businesses and government to further regulate and cut back on the use of these forever chemicals and to invest in technology that can better remove them from our environment.