Thousands of harmful man-made chemicals could be lurking in your drinking water — but you wouldn’t know it, because water utilities aren’t required to test for them.
A bill introduced last summer by two state representative seeks to change that. Ohio House Bill 365, sponsored by state reps. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, and Mary Lightbody, D-Westerville, would set a maximum level for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly called PFAS, in public drinking water systems. If the legislation were to pass, Ohio would join a handful of other states that have set limits on PFAS in drinking water.
“Ohio should not wait to set limits on PFAS chemicals,” said Melanie Houston, interim water director with the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, during a March 8 statehouse press conference highlighting several water quality bills.
“Instead we should join a growing number of states taking action to protect our residents, especially our children, from the known health impacts. The longer we fail to act, the more health and treatment costs will continue to grow.”
PFAS are a group of more than 5,000 chemicals found in a variety of consumer goods. They make things waterproof, stain resistant or nonstick. The substances are found in paper and cardboard packaging, carpeting, textiles, paints, medical devices, personal care products and cookware. They’re also a component of firefighting foam.
Often called “forever chemicals” because they do not readily break down in the environment, PFAS are found in the soil, ground water and even rainwater.
The chemicals accumulate in human and animal tissues and have been connected with a variety of health issues. Research suggests high levels of PFAS exposure could lead to testicular and kidney cancers, decreased birth weights, pregnancy-induced hypertension, high cholesterol and liver damage.
The first PFAS chemicals were developed and used in the 1940s. One of the first uses was by DuPont in nonstick Teflon pans. Decades later, DuPont would become the center of a scandal for allegedly leaking perfluorooctanoic acid, a PFAS often called PFOA, from its Parkersburg, West Virginia plant, and contaminating the water.
A farmer near Parkersburg was the first to raise the alarm about possible contamination issues from DuPont when his cattle started becoming sick and dying, after DuPont put a landfill adjacent to his farm.
In 2001, residents living near the plant filed a class action lawsuit against DuPont, after people became sick. Documents revealed DuPont knew for years the health risks associated with PFOA. According to Ohio EPA documents, the Washington Works plant, in Parkersburg, West Virginia, also contaminated drinking water in parts of Washington, Athens and Meigs counties in Ohio. The company paid more than $600 million to settle thousands of lawsuits in 2017.
The DuPont case is what thrust PFAS into the public consciousness, said Ben Frech, public relations and government affairs manager with the National Groundwater Association, based in Westerville, Ohio.
“The reason this stuff wasn’t being found is because it wasn’t being looked for,” he said.
PFAS in Ohio
There is no federal standard for PFAS. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 recommended a non-enforceable health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFAS in drinking water and promised to set stricter national standards for two types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — by 2023.
At the direction of Gov. Mike DeWine, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Department of Health in 2019 developed an action plan for dealing with PFAS in drinking water. As part of that plan, the Ohio EPA tested more than 1,500 public drinking water systems for PFAS and found 106 water sources had a detectable level of PFAS present.
The plan also adopted the federal guidance levels for PFAS and instructed the Ohio EPA to set up protocols for when those levels are exceeded, including “public notification and issuance of drinking water advisories.”
Other water quality legislation in Ohio
House Bill 349 would prohibit new concentrated animal feeding operations from being built in the Maumee River watershed unless certain water quality goals are met. It’s sponsored by state Rep. Michael Sheehy, D-Toledo, and Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson, D-Toledo.
The bill was referred to the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee last June, but has not had any hearings yet.
House Bill 579, sponsored by state Rep. Lightbody, D-Westerville, will prohibit the surface application of brine from oil and gas wells on Ohio’s roads. The legislation was referred to the House Energy and Natural Resources committee on March 1.
Ohio is one of 10 states that permits the use of wastewater from oil and gas wells as a de-icing or dust inhibiting application by spraying it on roads and earth surfaces.
Establishing a maximum contaminant level, as House Bill 365 seeks to do, would require public drinking water systems to stay within those limits. This could be done through treating the water and by limiting the discharge of contaminants through permitting.
Setting a maximum contaminant level would cost the state nothing, said Russo, during an Ohio House Agriculture and Conservation Committee hearing Feb. 15 where she and Lightbody presented sponsor testimony on House Bill 365.
“These proposals direct existing regulatory agencies to set state level standards,” Russo said. “These are Ohio-specific standards based on the evidence for drinking water based on a review of the best scientific evidence, nor is there a cost to companies or manufacturers.”
Still, some committee members were concerned about the potential added cost for water treatment facilities to test for and treat water if PFAS is found, particularly in communities that are already struggling with older public water systems.
“We have many filtration systems in Ohio that are outdated, that are struggling to take the amounts into their system and clean it and get it back out,” said state Rep. Joe Miller, D-Amherst. “How do you pull these forever chemicals out? … Do the treatments plants have the capability to do that currently?”
Russo pointed to money available through last fall’s federal infrastructure bill to improve water quality. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act set aside $10 billion to address PFAS contamination, including $5 billion to help rural and disadvantaged communities purchase point-of-entry or point-of-use filtration systems and $4 billion to help water utilities remove PFAS from drinking water supplies. Ohio is set to receive $24 million in 2022 towards PFAS treatment.
Russo also emphasized in her sponsor testimony that the legislation would provide “clear guidance to Ohio’s companies on how to maintain a healthy environment while continuing to participate in a thriving economy.”
The lack of a federal standard for PFAS “creates regulatory whiplash” and uncertainty for businesses that operate in multiple states, Frech told Farm and Dairy. The states that have regulations have a range of values. Michigan set its maximum contaminant level for the substance PFNA at 6 parts per trillion. Massachusetts and Vermont both set their PFNA standards at 20 parts per trillion.
The National Groundwater Association advocates for a uniform federal standard, as well as more federal support to remediate PFAS in both public and private water systems. The two things need to be done together to have a meaningful impact, Frech said.
“The good news is there’s a wide variety of technology to remediate PFAS, to clean it out of the water and soil,” he said. The bad news is that it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of money.”
For Lightbody, there was a more important question to consider than cost.
“It’s a question of how do you balance the health of humans versus the cost to provide safe drinking water,” she said, during the committee hearing. “It seems to me that safe drinking water is a right and that we have every obligation to do everything we can to not only identify where there are problems, but then to mitigate them when they occur.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or email@example.com.)
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