‘Forever chemicals’ found in 24 drinking water systems in region

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

A look at PFAS

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Nearly all of them had low levels, 1 exceeded recommended levels of contaminants

A group of so-called forever chemicals were detected in more than 20 public drinking water systems throughout Southwest Ohio but only one — Aullwood Audubon Farm Discovery Center — exceeded the federal recommended levels.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency sampled more than 1,550 public drinking water systems to determine if the contaminants, known as PFAS, were present. The testing, which wrapped up in late December, is part of Ohio’s action plan that’s aimed at addressing potential threats to both public and private drinking water systems.

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project digs into solutions to the biggest issues facing our community, including the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. In this story, we examine the results of the state’s PFAS tests in area drinking water systems.

The graphic shows which public water systems in Southwest Ohio have some levels of PFAS, a group of chemicals that can cause cancer and other health issues. The results are part of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's sampling of about 1,150 public water systems throughout the state im 2020. ALEXIS LARSEN / CONTRIBUTING ARTIST
The graphic shows which public water systems in Southwest Ohio have some levels of PFAS, a group of chemicals that can cause cancer and other health issues. The results are part of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's sampling of about 1,150 public water systems throughout the state im 2020. ALEXIS LARSEN / CONTRIBUTING ARTIST

Low levels of the contaminants were detected in 24 Southwest Ohio public water systems in counties such as Greene, Montgomery, Clark and Warren, according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

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In all, 106 ― or 6% ― of the state’s public drinking water systems contain PFAS below the federal recommended level of 70 parts per trillion. Aullwood was one of only two in the state to exceed that level, according to the Ohio EPA.

A part per trillion is the equivalent of a grain of sand in an Olympic-size pool or a pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips

No traces of the chemicals were found in the remaining 94% of the systems, according to the Ohio EPA.

“There is still a lot that experts don’t yet know about the dangers of PFAS compounds in drinking water, but as a result of this work, we can say with certainty that these chemicals are not widely contaminating Ohio’s public water systems,” Gov. Mike DeWine said in a release. “We want Ohioans to feel confident that their water is safe, and I’m pleased that these testing results can provide some peace of mind.”

But any amounts of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances ― or PFAS ― in drinking water should be cause for concern, given their harmful nature, cautioned Abinash Agrawal, a Wright State University earth and environmental sciences professor.

Abinash Agrawal, Wright State University earth and environmental sciences professor./ Contributed
Abinash Agrawal, Wright State University earth and environmental sciences professor./ Contributed

Exposure to high levels of PFAS might affect pregnancy, the kidneys and liver, increase cholesterol levels, decrease vaccine response in children and cause some forms of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The contaminants were once widely used in manufacturing, carpeting, upholstery, food packaging and other commercial and military uses. Notably, the substances were used to extinguish fires that couldn’t be extinguished with water alone.

Ohio Lawmakers in December passed legislation that makes it illegal for firefighters to use chemicals that contain PFAS.

In addition, Harvard University released a study in December that says people with elevated levels of PFAS in their blood have a higher chance of hospitalization and death if they get infected with COVID-19.

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The Ohio and U.S. EPA have not set legal limits for PFAS. But the federal agency is reviewing a proposal to regulate the chemicals in drinking water and should decide this month if it will move forward, a spokesperson said. It’s not clear at this time what a new level might be, but scientists and organizations such as the nonprofit Environmental Working Group say it should be in the teens or single digits.

“Whenever states look for PFAS, they find contaminated water supplies,” Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG, said in a news release. “The new test results from Ohio underscore how pervasive PFAS contamination is in drinking water throughout the country. Ohio and the U.S. EPA should act swiftly to protect the public by regulating PFAS in drinking water, protecting drinking water sources with more stringent regulations on industrial discharges of PFAS and cleaning up contaminated sites.”

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Local results and what those mean

Water systems in Aullwood in Montgomery County and the village of Bridgeport in Belmont County are the only ones in the state that have PFAS levels that exceed 70 ppt, the agency said.

The state identified two PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, at combined levels of 97 ppt in Aullwood’s drinking water system in October. The facility has been using bottled water since, and is working on a long-term solution.

That discovery led Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County and the Ohio Department of Health to urge 180 homeowners in the vicinity of Aullwood to test their private wells for PFAS.

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Here is a breakdown of the number of public water systems in each Southwest Ohio county with levels of PFAS:

  • Clark: 1
  • Clermont: 3
  • Clinton: 1
  • Greene: 8
  • Warren: 6
  • Hamilton: 1
  • Miami: 1
  • Montgomery: 3

Over the next year, the Ohio EPA will test systems across the state that have low-level detections quarterly to ensure the levels remain below the action levels, said Heidi Griesmer, the agency’s deputy communications director. They will continue to work with public water systems where necessary to identify ways to optimize treatment and operations to reduce levels, she added.

The Ohio EPA’s PFAS action level of 70 ppt is consistent with the U.S. EPA health advisory for the contaminants. However, other states have set or are considering limits in the single-digits and teens. A 2018 CDC report proposed health thresholds for PFOA and PFOS should be about 10 times lower than the U.S. EPA’s suggested level, said Agrawal, a groundwater contamination and remediation expert.

Consuming water containing the chemicals over time ― even if they are below the current Ohio action level of 70 ppt ― may be harmful, he said. The long-term health effects of PFAS in drinking water is not fully understood, he noted.

The Harvard study found that people with elevated levels of the toxins have an increased chance of going to intensive care, and dying if they get infected with the coronavirus.

Some states have proposed lower PFAS levels in drinking water than the federal guidelines. For instance, New York has proposed enforceable standards for drinking water at 10 ppt. Michigan set a screening level of 9 ppt for PFOA and 8 ppt for PFOS.

“Each public supply well withdraws thousands of gallons of water per minute, which means that there is a considerable PFAS contamination in the aquifer at that site,” Agrawal said. “Even if the measured PFAS concentration in the well water is less than 70 ppt, a continuous level of contamination for that much water volume suggests a major PFAS source nearby.”

The fact that more than 100 of the state’s public drinking water systems contain some level of the chemicals indicates that Ohio has a large number of PFAS contaminated sites, he said.

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PFAS tend to originate from nearby manufacturing facilities, airports, and military bases where firefighter foams and other industrial chemicals that contain the contaminants have been used over the years, Agrawal said.

Aullwood is located at 9101 Frederick Pike, in Montgomery County’s Butler Twp., between the city of Englewood on the west and Dayton International Airport to the east. The airport, factories and warehouses in the surrounding area are among the likely sources of PFAS contamination in the aquifer, he said.

There’s no evidence that the airport is the source of the Aullwood contamination. The airport is willing and prepared to offer help and cooperate with the Ohio EPA on whatever testing and sampling it requires, airport officials have said.

About the Path Forward

Our team of investigative reporters digs into what you identified as pressing issues facing our community. The Path Forward project seeks solutions to these problems by investigating the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. Follow our work at DaytonDailyNews.com/PathForward or join one of our Facebook Groups.