Cities Confront the 'Forever Chemicals' Contaminating Drinking Water

As the EPA and Congress debate PFAS regulations, local governments are taking action to protect people from toxic chemicals used in the production of practically everything.
by | July 2019
Foamy water.
(AP)

The first inkling the city of Ann Arbor had that its drinking water was contaminated was five years ago. That was when the federal government started including a class of common industrial chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in routine testing it asked the city to do. At the time, few people in the Michigan city understood how dangerous and prevalent those chemicals could be.

Researchers and regulators came to learn that the most common PFAS -- a designation that covers thousands of chemicals -- are linked to kidney and testicular cancer, pre-eclampsia, liver malfunction and weak immune responses, which limit the effectiveness of vaccines.

With the public growing increasingly alarmed, Ann Arbor spent a million dollars to filter many of the chemicals from its water and raised its rates to cover the cost of ongoing treatment. It is one of the few water utilities to take such a drastic step as the federal government, state regulators and other utilities grapple with how to respond to a type of pollution that was barely understood until recently.

This class of chemicals has been used in the production of everything from Teflon pans and stain-resistant carpet to fast-food containers and firefighting foam. The chemical bonds that make them useful in those situations also make them extremely hard to break down in the natural environment. As a result, the so-called forever chemicals, which were first manufactured in the 1940s, have been found all around the world -- in the air, soil and water, and in polar bears, bald eagles, salmon and nearly every human that’s ever been tested.

As of March, at least 610 locations in 43 states -- many of them associated with drinking water systems or military bases -- were known to be affected by PFAS pollution, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. That’s likely an understatement because in most states, there’s no routine system for testing for the chemicals in the environment.

Worries about the health effects of PFAS in drinking water grew last year when federal health researchers warned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended thresholds for the chemicals were seven to 10 times too high. The conclusions were so alarming that the Trump administration initially tried to block the release of the draft report, fearing, according to internal emails, a “public relations nightmare.” The water in Ann Arbor at one point had 43 parts-per-trillion (ppt) of PFOS, one of the chemicals; the authors of the 2018 draft report said the threshold for PFOS should be 7 ppt, not 70 ppt, as the EPA recommends.

Brian Steglitz, Ann Arbor’s water treatment plant manager, says residents pushed for action. The city is home to the University of Michigan, and its residents are well-educated and engaged, he says. Local officials didn’t want to risk people thinking their drinking water wasn’t safe. So the city replaced its filters, which initially cost $850,000 (a tenth of its operating budget) and will add nearly $200,000 in extra costs every year. Plus, the utility started issuing monthly water quality reports, instead of the annual reports required by federal law.

The city’s goal is to comply with the most stringent regulations on PFAS in the country, whether it’s legally obligated to or not. The EPA and Congress are considering national rules for the chemicals, but those efforts are hampered by the fact that scientists have only studied a few of the thousands of chemicals classified as PFAS. Regulators and lawmakers are debating whether to restrict just the few compounds that are known to be dangerous or the entire class. They haven’t agreed what level of exposure is safe, if any.

While the federal government deliberates, local and state governments are taking action, too. But that means the drinking water standards could be different in Michigan than they are in New Jersey, says Steglitz.

“Our customers have one question, and that’s the question that everyone’s asking all around the country: Is my water safe to drink?” Steglitz says. “They want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. They don’t want a ‘yes, but ... .’ I don’t think you want to be the state with the highest [thresholds].”

“The most challenging thing” about PFAS, he adds, “is that the science isn’t moving fast enough to keep up with the media coverage and the political attention. How do you communicate the unknown to your customers so they can still continue to have faith and confidence in municipal water systems? That is difficult.”