Water study: Alabama has 4th highest level of PFAS contaminants

by Andrew J. Yawn,


A few months after a water advisory was issued for north Alabama due to high levels of PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a Harvard University study has found that Alabama has the fourth-highest concentration of the chemicals in its water supply behind California, New Jersey and North Carolina.

PFASs are chemicals that repel water and are resistant to fire and oil. Because of these properties, PFASs have been used in household cleaners, fire fighting foams and Teflon cookware.

However, the scientific community is beginning to connect ingestion of PFASs to health issues which is why those shopping for a new non-stick frying pan will most likely see many touting the “PFOA-free” label in reference to perfluorooactanoic acid, a type of PFAS also found in some Alabama water supplies.

PFAS have now been linked to birth defects, cancer, obesity and immune system suppression, and the Harvard-led study found PFASs in the drinking water supplies of 16.5 million Americans.

Drinking water from 13 states accounted for 75 percent of the detections with Alabama having the fourth-highest amount of those 13.

The Alabama Department of Public Health and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a water advisory on May 19 after PFASs were found in eight north Alabama water systems.

“For the last three years, the levels of PFOS, PFOA and emerging contaminants in surface water have been monitored in all drinking water systems serving more than 10,000 people and in selected systems serving fewer people. ADPH will continue to review all studies and recommendations related to ingestion of these chemicals through public water supplies. ADEM is working with the named water systems to collect additional monitoring data where appropriate and to identify methods to reduce the water concentration of PFCs to a level below the final health advisory recommendation,” reads the ADPH statement.

The north Alabama contamination has been linked to the 3M plant on the Tennessee River. Not only was 3M pinpointed as a source of PFAS contamination by the Harvard study due to its use of the chemicals in the manufacture of non-stick goods, but the company has also been named a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed by non-profit Tennessee Riverkeeper.

Chemical plant BASF in McIntosh, Ala., was also identified as an origin point for PFASs by the study. Water supplies around military fire training areas, airports and wastewater treatment plants were also found to contain PFASs with public water systems near manufacturing sites having an 81 percent higher chance of being contaminated by PFASs. Military sites increased risk by 35 percent, according to the study.

With at least 100,000 people in Alabama affected by the presence of PFAS-contaminated water, many are looking for a way to filter out the chemicals.

One of the eight Alabama water systems named by the EPA, the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority, has a plan in place to put in a $4 million temporary filter until the permanent filter — estimated to cost upwards of $30 million — can be completed in 2019, according to several media reports.

When asked for comment, the EPA would only say that the study will be reviewed by the organization.

The EPA lowered the minimum reporting level of PFASs to 70 parts per trillion this year. After this study, regulation and cleanup of PFASs may get more stringent.

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