On June 15th, 2022 the EPA released new health advisories (HAs) for a chemical group known as PFAS. The EPA’s health advisories are used by municipalities as guidelines for how to keep our drinking water safe and free from harmful chemicals and contaminants.  Using the most current scientific evidence, they make recommendations for the best ways municipalities can protect public health. 

The group of manufactured chemicals in question, PFAS, has been under scrutiny for a number of years as research continues to show the negative long term impacts of exposure to this class of chemicals on public and environmental health.  

This newly released health advisory shines light on just how dangerous these ‘forever chemicals’ are and what our local municipalities can do to protect our communities. 

What’s Are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used widely since the 1940s to produce everyday items.  They have been used in carpet and textile manufacturing, non-stick cookware, food packaging, firefighting foam, aerospace, automotive production, construction materials, and electronics.  

This class of chemicals has become known as “Forever Chemicals” because they break down slowly in the environment and in the body.  Their molecules are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms which is one of the strongest known bonds.  Their strength is so great that scientists are unable to estimate a half life for PFAS, which is the amount of time it takes 50% of the contaminant to disappear. 

They are now found widely in the soil, water, and air.  The most widespread and well studied of these chemicals are Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).  They are no longer manufactured in the United States but have since been replaced with ‘alternative PFAS’ like a chemical group known as GenX.

Why It’s Important to Public Health

Because PFAS are widespread, it is estimated that these chemicals are now in the blood of 97% of Americans. This exact number and the sources of exposure are difficult to assess as there are many thousands types of PFAS chemicals that are widely used.

It is believed that the majority of PFAS contamination comes from consuming water or food that contains them.  Although more research is needed to determine all sources of exposure.

There are several studies that have linked PFAS exposure to long term health problems including potential effects on metabolism, pregnancy, children’s cognition and neurobehavioral development, and the immune system. Studies also suggest these chemicals may lead to higher cholesterol, altered liver function, thyroid disease, and increased levels of kidney and testicular cancer.

New EPA Health Advisories 

The new health advisories released this June by the EPA, based on the latest science considering lifetime exposure, state that negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA and PFOS in water that are near zero.  

The EPA also issued final health advisories for two other PFAS class chemicals perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt (PFBS) and for hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt (“GenX chemicals”). In chemical and product manufacturing, GenX chemicals are considered a replacement for PFOA, and PFBS is considered a replacement for PFOS.

The agency reports that drinking water is only safe to consume if it has less than 2000 parts per trillion of PFBS and 10 parts per trillion of GenX, 4 parts per quadrillion (0.004 ppt) of PFOA, and 20 parts per quadrillion (0.02 ppt) of PFOS. This new level is a substantially lower amount than the 70 parts per trillion that was considered safe in the initial health advisory released by the EPA in 2016.

It is difficult for many to even picture quantities this small. For perspective, the sun is about 94.5 million miles away. One part per trillion of that distance would be to move six inches closer to the sun. Related to the health advisory for PFOA, 4 parts per quadrillion would be moving less than a millimeter closer to the sun.

In short, astonishingly small amounts of these chemicals in lifetime exposure can lead to harmful public health outcomes.

Steps to Take to Protect Yourself

Two municipalities in our watershed that have found PFAS in the drinking water supply, Rome and Summerville, have taken actions to remediate the drinking water supply (you can read more about each municipality’s approach below).  The pollution also reaches further downstream as both Centre and Gadsden, AL have sued companies to recoup costs associated with removing these chemicals from their drinking water.

If you are concerned about PFAS in your drinking water, the EPA recommends installing a home or point of use filter, such as a Brita filter, and be sure to change your filter on schedule.  The EPA also provides this worksheet to give additional ways to minimize your exposure to PFAS in the environment.

PFAS in Our Watershed

PFAS has been detected at unsafe levels within rivers in our watershed.  The Oostanaula River, which until 2016 was the primary drinking water source for Rome, has contamination of PFAS from carpet manufacturing upstream.  Raccoon Creek, which is the drinking water source for Summerville, Ga, is also contaminated with PFAS from textile manufacturing and biosolid land application upstream.  PFAS has also been detected in the Chattooga River as well as downstream in areas of Alabama.  Both Summerville and Rome’s municipalities have taken steps to remediate their community’s drinking water.

CRBI has tested and will continue monitoring PFAS levels at known contaminated sites in our watershed.

Summerville’s Drinking Water

In May of 2021, The city of Summerville released a press release saying “The City has now installed Granular Activated Carbon (“GAC”) filters at the Raccoon Creek water treatment plant to bring levels of PFAS/PFOS below the EPA Health Advisory limits. The installation of GAC filters has been expensive, and it is also expensive to periodically replace the GAC filters, which must be done to ensure that the PFAS/PFOS pollution does not break through. Additional long-term solutions are being considered and evaluated to address the problem and find a permanent solution.

While the City of Summerville’s water is safe to drink, we do not believe Summerville’s water customers should be burdened with the added costs of construction of filtration systems and added operational costs that are incurred in making the water safe.”  

They go on to describe a pending lawsuit that the city of Summerville has filed against 3M to hold the chemical manufacturer accountable for the additional costs incurred by water customers in the City of Summerville.

Rome’s Drinking Water

When Rome found out that PFAS contaminated their drinking water that was sourced from the Oostanaula in 2016, the city switched its drinking water supply over to a smaller treatment plant at the Etowah River until it could provide proper treatment to the drinking water supply from the Oostanaula. 

The Rome Water and Sewer Department released a statement in 2019 saying “RWSD is pleased to report that all samples of RWSD drinking water taken during the 2016, 2017, 2018 calendar years and thus far in 2019 have been well below the EPA Health Advisory level for PFAS. “ 

Currently the City of Rome is using Granular Activated Carbon to treat the drinking water supply and is preparing to design and implement a longer-term solution using Reverse Osmosis to treat the municipal water.  

At this time the city reports that PFBS can be found in Rome’s water supply, but the levels are currently below the Health Advisory limits in Rome’s drinking water.

In Conclusion

While it is unfortunate that PFAS threatens our public and environmental health, this new health advisory is a step forward in the right direction to ensuring that our water, communities, and ecosystem is protected from longterm impacts. Continue to educate yourself by reading up on the EPA’s health advisories. CRBI will continue to monitor for PFAS in our watershed and we will do all that we can to protect and restore our waters from PFAS and other harmful contaminants.

Resources and Further Reading: