8 Alabama drinking water systems have chemicals linked to cancer above safe levels, EPA says

by Dennis Pillion, originally posted on May 23, 2016


he U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a new drinking water health advisory for certain man-made chemicals Thursday, warning consumers that exposure to elevated levels of the compounds can lead to a number of health problems over time, including cancer in adults and developmental effects impacts to fetuses and breastfed infants.

The synthetic chemicals, known as PFOS and PFOA, were used to manufacture non-stick cookware, stain-resistant products like Scotchgard, fire-fighting foam, waterproof clothing and other consumer products. The two compounds are widespread throughout the environment and even in humans. They do not break down naturally and concentrations of the substances can build up in people and animals over time.

UPDATE: Utilities scramble to address contaminants; Decatur utility plans $30-$50 million filter system

According to the EPA, scientists have found PFOS and PFOA in the blood of “nearly all the people they tested,” but in low concentrations.

The new advisories warn that if the chemicals are consumed in drinking water for a prolonged period, certain health problems are more likely. The EPA’s previous advisory level was based on short-term exposure. The new guidelines reflect what EPA says is emerging science that lower concentrations can have long-term impacts.

According to the latest EPA data, 13 water systems nationwide showed levels of PFOA above the new 70 parts per trillion threshold and 46 showed elevated levels of PFOS. In water supplies where both chemicals are found, EPA counts the combined amount of both chemicals.

The eight affected facilities in Alabama are:

  • West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority
  • Gadsden Water Works & Sewer Board
  • Centre Sewer Board
  • V.A.W. (Vinemont Anon West Point) Water Systems, Inc.
  • West Lawrence Water Co-op
  • Northeast Alabama Water District (in Fort Payne)
  • Southside Water Works and Sewer Board (in Gadsden)
  • The Utilities Board of Rainbow City

According to a news release from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, typical sources of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water are facilities that manufactured those compounds and industries that used those compounds in their manufacturing processes.

The 3M manufacturing facility in Decatur was a major producer of both substances until the company voluntarily phased out production of both chemicals in 2002. In 2006, EPA requested that eight other manufacturers phase out PFOA production by 2015, which the companies say they have done.

However, many believe that the chemicals are still leaching into the Tennessee River, and eventually Wheeler Reservoir even though the active production has stopped.

The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority filed a federal lawsuit last year against 3M, alleging that the company discharged the chemicals which they said “are not effectively treated by conventional wastewater treatment plant processes,” upstream from their intake on Wheeler Reservoir.

Non-profit environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper has also filed a notice of intent to sue 3M and others over PFOA and PFOS contamination of the river, saying that runoff from landfills containing high levels of PFOA and PFOS is entering the river and the groundwater.

“We applaud the EPA for issuing these long anticipated PFOA/PFOS health advisories,” said Mark Martin, attorney for Tennessee Riverkeeper. “This will allow regulators to set enforceable limits for these dangerous chemicals to protect human health and the environment.

“This is a significant step toward the goal of, at long last, eliminating these poisons from the environment.”

To remove the substances from drinking water, EPA recommends using activated carbon filtering or high pressure membrane systems (e.g., reverse osmosis), which are not standard methods of water treatment.

3M has said that the health claims in these lawsuits are overblown.

“3M’s activities in connection with these materials were not only fully permitted but entirely appropriate,” William Brewer III, partner in a Dallas-based law firm that represents 3M in those law suits, said via email. “In any event, the claims against 3M are based upon the mistaken belief that the mere presence of these chemicals equals harm.

“3M believes the claims lack merit. There has been no harm to plaintiffs’ property or human health due to the mere environmental presence of these materials.”

PFOA stands for perfluorooctanoic acid. PFOS is short for  perfluorooctyl sulfonate.

According to an EPA publication on PFOA and PFOS, potential health effects of long-term exposure could include “developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).”

The new health advisories are not an enforceable standard or regulation, but are meant as guidelines for drinking water system operators.

In Alabama, ADEM said it would be working with the Alabama Department of Public Health and the affected water systems to help bring their drinking water within the new guidelines.

“While any health advisory is understandably a cause for concern, citizens can be assured ADEM has and will continue to provide technical assistance to any affected water system to implement measures that address the EPA health advisory and any health recommendations determined by ADPH,” ADEM said in a news release.

Brewer said that the new advisories did not mandate any action on the part of 3M since those compounds are no longer being manufactured.

“3M will continue to work cooperatively the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, EPA, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and other stakeholders to research and remediate these chemicals – and hope others who contribute to their presence in the environment will do the same,” Brewer said.

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