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Searching for answers to ‘forever chemicals’ - U.S. EPA heading toward regulation

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 9/20/2022 Peter Krouse, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio – They’re called PFAS in the scientific world - short for perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances - but they’re more commonly and more descriptively known as “forever chemicals.”

That’s because they don’t readily decompose.

They also come with serious health concerns. Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new federal health advisories for forever chemicals in drinking water and stated its intention to deliver enforceable standards by the end of 2023.

For Ohio, that means more than 1,500 public water systems across the state would be forced to comply with whatever mandates come down the pike.

“We’re focused on preparing our systems for those federal numbers,” said Amy Jo Klei, chief of the division of drinking and ground water at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

What’s at stake

There’s still a lot to be learned about the health effects of PFAS on humans, but they are believed to be harmful in a variety of ways.

The chemicals get into waste streams and landfills, and eventually the water supply. They float through the atmosphere and are brought to earth by precipitation in remote parts of the world.

They “like to stick to proteins in your blood and then they hitch a ride throughout your body,” said Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. The chemicals build up in the liver and kidneys and can cause quite a bit of damage.

Research has linked exposure to PFAS to decreased fertility in women, developmental delays in children, an increased risk of various cancers and a variety of other health concerns.

A little history

PFAS compounds have been in use for several decades, emerging from the Manhattan Project and then commercialized by the chemical giants such as Dow, DuPont and 3M.

They are made up primarily of carbon and flourine, two elements found separately in nature but that are nearly impossible to pull apart once they are bound together. And scientists over the years have found plenty of uses for these unholy unions, from grease-repellent wrappers and stain-resistant fabrics, to firefighting foam used at airports and shipyards.

They made a celebrity out of Rob Bilott, a lawyer from Cincinnati who more than 20 years ago connected a West Virginia farmer’s dying cattle to forever chemicals dumped by DuPont in a nearby landfill.

A class action lawsuit followed involving residents of West Virginia and Ohio. Today, Bilott, a partner in the Taft law firm, “has secured benefits in excess of $1 billion for a wide array of firm clients adversely impacted by PFAS contamination, including through key leadership positions in the nation’s first class action, personal injury, medical monitoring, and multi-district litigations, and jury trials involving PFAS,” according to his bio on the firm’s website. Bilott’s story is highlighted in the 2019 movie “Dark Waters.”

Awareness of the PFAS problem has been growing, said Kurt Rhoads, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Case Western Reserve University who researched forever chemicals while a doctoral student at Stanford University nearly two decades ago.

“There’s been a kind of steady drumbeat of activism that is sort of reaching a peak,” he said.

In October 2021, the U.S. EPA issued a “strategic roadmap” for addressing PFAS contamination that has led not only to anticipated drinking water regulations but also a proposal to have two of the most notorious forever chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) an perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), declared hazardous substances under Superfund legislation.

Drinking water

In June, the U.S. EPA issued interim health advisories related to PFOA and PFOS, which have been largely phased out of production but still exist in the environment. The old levels for drinking water were 70 parts per trillion but are now 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.

“The updated advisory levels, which are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect at this time,” the EPA stated.

The EPA also set final health advisory levels for two other forever chemicals – known as GenX and PFBS – that are used as replacements for PFOA and PFOS. There are several thousand different forever chemicals in existence.

The health advisories are not mandates but they will help the U.S. EPA set enforceable standards, Stoiber said. Seven states have already imposed their own PFAS regulations for drinking water. Ohio is not one of them, put the state has not stood still either.

In 2019, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine initiated a statewide action plan that resulted in testing for several forever chemicals at 1,550 public water systems. Detectable levels were not found in more than 94% of the systems and only in two instances did the levels exceed previous health advisories, prompting action by the Ohio EPA.

One of those cases involved the village of Bridgeport, across the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia, and the other the Aullwood Audubon Farm Discovery Center in Dayton. Both relied on their own wells and are now served by other public systems, Klei said.

PFAS were detected in the raw water at 106 of the systems tested. Forever chemicals were detected in the finished water at 80 of those locations, but at levels below the health advisories, Klei said. Ohio EPA has offered technical assistance - and in some cases addtional monitoring - to those systems to help reduce PFAS levels through either treatment, adjusting well fields or connecting with other water sources.

Most of the 1,550 water systems tested rely on wells with only about 120 systems pulling from surface water, Klei said.

State testing did not turn up any detectable levels of PFAS in the Cleveland water supply. The Cleveland Water Department on its own has also tested the raw water it pulls from Lake Erie as well as its treated water over the past five years and detected no contamination, said Scott Moegling, water quality manager for the Cleveland Water Department.

Moegling believes there is less chance of detection in water taken from a large source such as Lake Erie because of the dilution factor.

“Our intakes are so far out and in such deep water that we’re not finding it in any detectable concentrations,” Moegling said.

Disposing of the chemicals

While there are methods to remove PFAS from drinking water, such as through a process called ion exchange or the use of granulated activated carbon filters, Stoiber said, the concentrations that result still pose a disposal problem.

That dilemma has drawn the attention of a number of researchers, including a team led by William Dichtel, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University. The group recently reported a breakthrough in its mission to degrade certain types of forever chemicals.

Dichtel said that while there are a variety of emerging methods to dispose of forever chemicals, his team found a way to do so under “surprisingly mild conditions.”

The team combined a solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide with sodium hydroxide, which is essentially lye, and then added the PFAS and heated the mixture to about 100 degrees Celsius. The forever chemicals separated into fluoride, which is the stuff municipal systems put in their water to fight tooth decay, Dichtel said. The carbon transformed into safe carbon-containing compounds, such as carbon dioxide or sodium carbonate, which is essentially baking soda.

The research performed in a lab only involved a few forever chemicals and does not have any practical application yet, Dichtel said, and it will probably be several years before it does.

Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist at University Hospitals, is encouraged by the research to destroy forever chemicals. He said in an emailed statement that it “might mean we do not need to worry quite as much if we are able to find ways to remove them, because these chemicals remain ubiquitous in their uses and are unlikely to disappear on their own.”

Stoiber called Dichtel’s research a “positive” sign that PFAS is garnering more attention. But she also said that going foward forever chemicals should only be used in rare cases where the need is great and alternatives are not available.

“All non-essential uses should be phased out,” she said.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit cleveland.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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