COMMUNITY CONVERSATION: Experts answer your questions about our region’s water

For the past several months, we’ve been investigating the potential contamination of our region’s public water systems.

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, we hosted a Community Conversation about the importance of our region’s water supply, threats to its health and what can be done to protect it for the future.

The discussion was co-hosted by Community Impact Editor Nick Hrkman and reporter Sydney Dawes and featured a panel of leaders and experts from around the region, including:

Credit: HUE12, LLC

Credit: HUE12, LLC

Matt Hilliard, Director of Montgomery County Environmental Services

Sarah Hippensteel, Manager of Outreach, Education, and Stewardship for the Miami Conservancy District

Tasha Stoiber, Senior Scientist at the Environmental Working Group

Linda K. Weavers, Co-director of the Ohio Water Resources Center

Editor’s Note: The transcript below has been edited for brevity and clarity. You can watch the full recording of the Community Conversation on the Dayton Daily News Facebook page.

What is special about our region’s water supply?

WEAVERS: One of the things that’s so special about our region is that we are sitting on top of a very large, very replenishable, very clean and plentiful aquifer. Millions of years ago, when the glaciers scraped out this valley, they left behind a valley filled with sand and gravel. Think of that sand and gravel as a bowl, and the entire bowl is filled up with water and all of those little porous spaces right up to the surface. Then there’s a thin layer of soil on top where we put our roads, houses and businesses. When it rains, there is a lot of surface area for that rain to help fill our bowl back up. So when other aquifers are going dry out west, and other parts of the country and the world, one reason is that it’s not easily replenishable. And our aquifer is also a very clean source of water. Many municipalities or businesses that want to use that water don’t have to do a whole lot of treatment to make it safe to use. So our aquifer is for the most part in very good condition, and it’s connected to all our wonderful rivers and streams. And we have some of the healthiest rivers and streams in Ohio.

What are PFAS and what impact do they have on our health?

WEAVERS: There’s about 3,000 of them that have various industrial uses, but then there’s a whole bunch of PFAS that are in this class that get broken down or are manufacturing byproducts that weren’t made for specific reasons. These compounds have this carbon and fluorine bond and this is a really strong bond and hard to break apart. It has many applications because of that bond. But it’s really terrible in an environmental sense, because it’s really hard to get rid of. It just sticks around forever. And that’s why it has that tag “forever chemicals.” So these chemicals, because they stick around forever, they’re found in the blood of almost all of us. You have to go back to the blood supply before the 1950s to really find blood levels in blood banks that keep these samples around that don’t have PFAS in them. It’s found all over, it’s found in rainwater in everywhere except, like, Antarctica and Tibet, in levels that are above what the EPA is established as health advisory levels. There are a whole bunch of links to health outcome issues, such as high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and some cancers like testicular and kidney cancers, pregnancy, and hypertension, potential liver malfunction, maybe lower birth weight and obesity. There’s a number of issues that keeps growing as we study it.

How do these forever chemicals get into our drinking water?

HILLIARD: PFAS is not easily broken down and can last in the environment for many years. Anytime PFAS is spilled, used or disposed of in the environment, whether it’s in the ground or directly into waterways, it’s going to be a problem. For instance, if it’s in the ground, it could seep through and it’ll eventually make its way to the groundwater aquifer. And sometimes it might be disposed of right in surface water and it can contaminate the waterways. And when the aquifer or the waterway is used as the source for drinking water, and there is no treatment to remove it at the water plants, then the PFAS will be in the finished drinking water. I know the Dayton Daily News has reported a lot around the Dayton area on the PFAS levels surrounding the base. The most common contamination that’s reported on is the firefighting foam used in trainings there.

Can you see or taste these contaminants?

STOIBER: If we’re talking about PFAS, you can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, you can’t see it. Of course you might have other issues where you might be tasting something else, seeing brown or cloudy water or something like that. But if we’re talking about PFAS, if it is in your drinking water, there won’t be any indication. The the only way that you will know if it is in your drinking water is if you test for it.

In our reporting, we’ve been talking about this proposed contamination limit for PFAS, from 70 parts-per-trillion to 4 parts-per-trillion. What is the significance of that?

WEAVERS: If you look at the health advisory levels, they are actually lower than the proposed limit. The process of setting regulations is pretty complicated and involved. It involves health risks, which is where the health advisory level is set. And that takes into account not only getting PFAS from our drinking water, but other potential sources of PFAS getting into our bodies. Two-thirds of our PFAS exposure is coming from other sources, such as food and our indoor environments. And regulators also have to consider what is practical. There is going to be a cost for this new regulation.

What obstacles exist for the treatment of contaminated water?

HILLIARD: There are a couple of ways of treating PFAS in drinking water. You can do that through active carbon ion exchange or through reverse osmosis. However, it leaves you with another problem: What do we do with the contaminated residual, or the byproduct, or the waste stream that now has a buildup of PFAS? It’s still there, it’s got to go somewhere. Is it going to landfill, which is going to leach back into the groundwater? There’s research going on looking for safe and efficient ways to destroy PFAS. I think right now, they’re looking at incineration. Hopefully, that’s going to be the game changer. Another obstacle would be the already-existing PFAS products out there, like unused firefighting foam sitting in fire stations across the US. What do you do with that?

This testing and treatment can be very expensive. Who should be paying for this?

HIPPENSTEEL: It is always cheaper to keep something clean than it is to clean it up. So I think the million or trillion dollar question is who’s going to help pay for this cleanup. I can’t tell you that. As we’ve talked about additional legislation or regulation on these compounds, we may see a ban on them completely in their future use. But what we are concerned with is today’s contamination. What else is out there that can be threatening our drinking water? We need to be protecting our wells in a much stronger and more proactive way. Zoning and planning are are ways that that our communities can do that. So how can we enable them to make that happen? How can we convince our public of that? There’s nothing more important than water protection, there’s nothing more important than clean drinking water for our future.

STOIBER: It’s so important that people know about this, that people are educated about the issue and the health risks. The most cost-effective strategy is preventing drinking water pollution in the first place. And I think the best way to do that is to phase out the non-essential uses as much as possible. It is such a difficult question to think about funding for treatment of all the public water systems that are now just pervasively contaminated from coast to coast. It really should fall on the on the polluters to pay. It might fall on the ratepayers in the communities, but it should go back to those that created the pollution in the first place.

What can people do to minimize their own exposure to these forever chemicals in their daily lives?

STOIBER: It’s it’s not possible for an individual to avoid all PFAS exposure. Everyone has them in their blood. I shouldn’t fall on the individual to try to eliminate every single exposure. But there are things that really do help. Filtering your drinking water, cooking more food at home. PFAS can be in food packaging. So making choices like that can make a difference. But it shouldn’t fall on the individual because it will be impossible to avoid all of those different exposures. And that’s where federal action and things like drinking water limits and phasing out non essential uses and getting as much PFAS as we can out of consumer products is really going to play a role.

What are microplastics?

STOIBER: We’re seeing a lot more research about the human health effects of microplastics. They’ve been detecting them in various regions in our bodies. California is looking at a program for testing their drinking water sources for microplastics. We’re just now understanding what the human health effects might be, but we’re quite concerned about those we already know about how wildlife are affected by microplastics. There’s a paper that came out a couple of years ago that found microplastics in pretty much all of the bottled water that they tested, and even drinking water. It can get into our food from food packaging, from cutting boards, even if you microwave your food in plastic. There are a lot of similarities between microplastic pollution and PFAS pollution, actually. Everywhere that we test for it, we’re tending to find it.

WEAVERS: I think many of us aren’t as versed on it because we started learning about the PFAS problems and issues right around the year 2000. The microplastics issue is much newer in terms of our learning and our understanding of it. We will need to learn a lot more over the next 10 or so years before we really have a sense for if there’s going to be any sort of a government oversight on this.

What are other contaminants that cause concern amongst people who work to protect our water sources?

HIPPENSTEEL: Some of the emerging threats that we are testing for are personal care products. Things that you might use on your body or in your home cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, things that we’re ingesting and then exiting the body through waste and getting into our water stream. We are looking at things like caffeine, even. We’re looking at that natural water setting, what’s in that aquifer, what’s in that river and stream. Unfortunately, as we get more sophisticated research capabilities to look for some of these things, we are finding them now they are in very tiny levels, but when we look for it, we find it.

What have studies shown about the effectiveness of portable water filters, such as Brita?

STOIBER: The Environmental Working Group looked at 10 different countertop filters. Not all filters that you use in your home are the same. Four of the filters that we tested really stood out, and that they did remove close to 100% of PFAS. We selected filters that were some of the top sellers and available to most people. The ones that worked well were the Berkey filters, an Epic countertop filters, Zero Water filters, and the Clearly Filtered filters. Those removed nearly all PFAS. And we did test the Britas and their peers. These tended to not be as effective as as we expected and they removed about 50% to 80% of PFAS, depending on the filter. But any filter really is better than none. The takeaway is not all of the countertop filters are the same. And the thing to remember is that you really do need to change out the filter cartridge, because it will greatly lose its effectiveness over time. A countertop filter can be an option for a lot of people, especially if you you don’t want to invest a lot upfront.

What effect does PFAS and other contaminants have on wildlife?

HIPPENSTEEL: Those are our canaries in the coal mine, so to speak. When they are impacted, they may be impacted earlier than then larger mammals. And we certainly need to keep an eye on how they are doing to help us understand the overall health of our ecosystem. One of the things that we look for that has an incredible impact on our wildlife is nutrients from fertilizers, untreated human sewage, things that have nitrogen and phosphorus in them that run off the land, or somehow get into our water. Some of those nutrients then cause these toxic algae blooms that we hear about in the news, the deadzone of the Gulf of Mexico, or severely restricting recreation because that toxic algae can can cause everything from skin irritation to liver failure or death. That’s something that we can reduce, because those are all human impacts. And we’ve spent a lot of time partnering with our agricultural community, with everybody from the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation down to individual farmers to try to incentivize practices that reduce this runoff. They don’t want to lose their fertilizer downstream, it’s expensive. They want to keep it on their their farm ground where it can help plants grow.

Where does PFAS contamination fall in the rankings of past public health threats, such as asbestos, lead or Teflon? How concerned should people be and how much action should we see from legislators?

WEAVERS: We certainly need action from legislators. Asbestos was a great product when it was released. It was used in all kind of products, so many different things in a similar way, but it didn’t seem to have the same pervasiveness. It’s not in rainwater, it’s not all over the world. This is a much trickier problem to solve, because it’s just gone everywhere, kind of like the microplastics issue that is emerging. We’ll see where that that goes in terms of understanding the toxicity issues. It’s really hard to kind of compare. CFCs were destroying the ozone hole, but they didn’t have the health effects piece. With the ozone hole, it took global action in order to really reduce these things. We can reduce things locally, but we’ll still see things spread across borders. We have to work together. It’s taken decades, but the ozone hole is getting to be less and less. That’s a really great outcome and it shows that we can do these things - but it does take time.

STOIBER: I wouldn’t necessarily think about drinking water contaminants in terms of ranking them. I like to think of this contaminant, and this contaminant, we all we need to address all of these different problems. PFAS, for example, is a really difficult problem, because the contamination is so widespread. But it’s worth noting that the EPA‘s new proposed MCL, or standard, is significant because there hasn’t been a new MCL proposed for an unregulated contaminant in over 20 years. It has been quite a while since there has been a new national limit for an unregulated contaminant. In the meantime, states have stepped up and there are state-level regulations, but there hasn’t been a new national limit in quite some time. I think, that is the result of building public pressure and the word getting out. And I think that’s why so many people have been paying attention to it and are thinking about drinking water more overall.