Study finds PFAS in area private wells but most well owners on their own

As state and local officials steer millions of dollars into addressing toxic “forever” chemicals in public water supplies, an untold number of homes on private wells are using water from the same contaminated source with little to no help in detecting or addressing the problem, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

Butler Twp. and Montgomery County partnered to test private wells in one area near the Dayton International Airport after PFAS was detected at Aullwood Farm among the highest levels in the state. They have spent more than $500,000 in federal COVID relief funds to test 155 wells, finding 68 contained some level of PFAS.

But there is no plan to help test private wells in other areas, such as near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where PFAS was detected at levels more than twice what was measured at Aullwood. Meanwhile, a federal study last year found that PFAS contamination in private wells could be a prevalent problem in parts of the country including Ohio.

PFAS, which stands for per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are resilient chemicals that take thousands of years to break down due to their strong carbon and fluorine bonds. Studies have shown long-term exposure to PFAS has been liked to health problems including kidney and liver damage and certain kids of cancer.

Testing for PFAS is expensive, costing on average between $600 and $1,000. And if a well owner finds their water is contaminated, upgrading their system to fix the problem costs considerably more.

Public records obtained by the Dayton Daily News show that of 155 private wells tested in Butler Twp., PFAS was detected in 68 private wells. In 34 cases, levels exceeded proposed U.S. EPA guidelines of 4 parts per trillion (ppt) and in two cases exceeded current standards of 70 ppt.

The federally proposed PFAS maximum contamination level (MCL) only applies to public water systems, but MCLs represent the most a toxin can contaminate drinking water before there are known or anticipated negative health effects, according to the U.S. EPA.

“The results were devastating at first,” said Janet Hamilton, whose home on Jackson Road had among the highest levels of PFAS.

She’s been drinking water from her well for more than 30 years.

“And there’s really no way to tell how long it’s been contaminated, when it got contaminated,” she said. “I’m just lucky nothing has happened to me.”

County officials advised she not drink water from her private well. She wanted to protect herself and her loved ones who visit her, as well as her four cats: B.W., Little Kitty, Taylor and Albert.

So the retiree had to take out a loan to install a reverse osmosis filter system at her kitchen sink. Installing similar filter systems on all of the other sinks in her home would cost her thousands more dollars — something she can’t afford living on a fixed income.

No government agency — federal or state — has oversight of private wells aside from their licensing or sealing, meaning residents on private wells are generally on their own in detecting and dealing with groundwater contamination from toxins such as PFAS.

The Ohio Department of Health estimates that more than 900,000 private water systems — primarily wells — are licensed in the state. These private systems serve roughly 2 million residents. Roughly 18,000 private wells have been licensed in Montgomery County. That figure does not include private wells that were created before licensing for wells was required in the 1980s, according to Public Health - Dayton and Montgomery County.

Many state or national grant programs geared toward private wells only cover costs related to the installation, replacement or repair of a private water system, but Community Development Block Grants could be used to cover costs related to connecting households to public water lines. Ohioans could also be eligible for a low-interest loan program that lends money to households wanting to purchase home water treatment systems.

PFAS testing continues in Butler Twp.

Testing in Butler Twp. was a result of a partnership between the township and Montgomery County Environmental Services. Sampling occurred from November 2022 to January 2023, after PFAS was detected at high levels in Aullwood Farm’s public water system.

Montgomery County Environmental Services used more than $400,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to hire a contractor to offer sampling to residents in what they call the “recommended well sampling area.” This included residences adjacent to Dayton International Airport from Old Springfield Road down past West National Road.

Montgomery County Environmental Services director Matt Hilliard said the county commission felt that residents of Butler Twp. “deserved to know exactly how much PFAS is in their wells.”

Hilliard said that Montgomery County Environmental Services is not currently planning additional sampling.

Butler Twp. is spending $190,000 in ARPA funding for another round of well testing, with sampling underway. Nearly 80 people signed up for testing in the township’s second sampling round, Vogel said.

“As needs and opportunities arise — like availability for residents to tap into new public water lines — we will evaluate them and determine if there are ways the township can collaborate with adjacent jurisdictions. We will also monitor the availability of state or federal funds allocated to PFAS,” said Erika Vogel, Butler Twp. administrator.

Well contamination could be prevalent, study shows

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in a study published last year found that PFAS contaminated groundwater in at least 14 different states, including Ohio. The study also found PFAS in 20% of private wells and nearly 60% of public water systems in the studied region.

Water was most likely to be contaminated with PFAS if the aquifer that supplied it was newly filled, or the well was near a fire training site or urban area, according to the USGS study.

In Greene County, Bath Twp. officials also say there aren’t plans currently in place to test wells for PFAS.

Bath Twp. houses Wright-Patterson Air Force base, which had the third highest detected levels of these compounds in the state, according to Ohio EPA records.

Bath Twp. administrator Chris Clark said that funding challenges would exist for sampling of private wells, as testing is costly, but it’s not a pursuit the township has dismissed.

State data shows there are hundreds of private home wells in Bath Twp. Greene County also does not have plans to test private wells in Bath Twp. or elsewhere for PFAS.

In addition to WPAFB, PFAS was detected in Fairborn’s water system at levels exceeding proposed U.S. EPA standards. Fairborn and Bellbrook were recently named in a $10.3 billion settlement with PFAS manufacturer 3M that will help them upgrade systems to improve water quality.

PFAS has not been found at detectable levels in water pumped by Greene County, though the county will be testing its primary well field in October for PFAS.

Greene County Sanitary Engineering, which serves a small portion of Bath Twp., is on track to unveil its multi-million dollar water and sewer upgrade next year. The upgrade includes a reverse osmosis filter system and aims to soften water. Reverse osmosis is efficient with filtering PFAS out of water, according to research.

Working to determine PFAS origins

Ohio State University professor and co-director of the Ohio Water Resources Center Linda Weavers said firefighting foam created with PFAS chemicals and used at airports and military bases is a common PFAS contaminant.

But given the mass-use of PFAS in products people use daily, the science behind determining the origins of the contamination is delicate.

“The highest sources are these sources like airports, bases with firefighting foams that are getting into our spaces,” Weavers said. “But that’s not the entire problem.”

Leaders of the Dayton International Airport declined to comment for this story on what they’re doing about PFAS. Airport officials previously said they took steps to minimize harm from PFAS, such as ceasing the disposal of firefighting foam into the ground in 2020.

A Wright State University scientist previously said that because the firefighting foam that contained two common types of PFAS dissolves in water easily and can move quickly through the soil to reach the groundwater, it’s likely that the toxins used at the airport traveled through Butler Twp. and contaminated the wells there.

The city of Dayton said there’s not a correlation between the use of firefighting foam at the airport and toxins detected in nearby communities. The city, however, has two separate lawsuits pending against PFAS manufacturers and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Department of Defense, in part because it claims the base’s use of firefighting foam contaminated a well field used by the city of Dayton to supply drinking water.

The Ohio EPA, along with many partners, is studying the origins of PFAS contamination in surface water. The study is expected to focus on testing PFAS contamination in fish, eliminating aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) fire suppressant as a possible contaminant and working with utility operators to further monitor PFAS discharge.

“This isn’t new regulation, this isn’t a new law,” said Anne Vogel, Ohio EPA director. “This is, ‘Let’s figure out where the problem spots are.’ It will be a multi-step process.”

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