Environment

Half of all the public drinking water systems tested in a new report from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet are showing evidence of PFAS contamination.

These chemicals belong to a class of more than 5,000 compounds often called “forever chemicals” and are known to increase the risk of cancer, among other health problems.

Researchers found the highest levels and the highest rates of detection in drinking water systems that pulled from waters connected to the Ohio River. State officials say that’s most likely because of the amount of industry near the waterway. In Louisville, researchers detected three PFAS compounds at two different water treatment plants, according to the report.

In most cases, the concentrations were far below the health advisory limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, but those limits are currently under review and several states are calling for significantly lower standards.

If nothing else, the frequency with which these so-called “forever chemicals” are appearing in Kentucky and elsewhere demonstrate the need for further testing, according to state and environmental officials.

“As an emerging contaminant, PFAS contamination is becoming more of an issue. And owing to the fact that it’s currently unregulated, doesn’t mean it might not be an issue for the public,” said Tony Hatton, Commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Testing The Waters

These chemicals are in food packaging, nonstick pans, paint, cleaning products and fire-fighting foams.

To even work with the samples, Kentucky scientists had to take extreme precautions. They could only wear cotton clothes. They were told to avoid nail polish, certain dental floss, deodorants and makeup.

They couldn’t even use the regular sampling bottles in Henderson County, because those too, contained PFOS and PFOA.

“Those extra precautions include ‘you don’t put your samples inside the vehicle, you might have Scotchgard seats,’ your clothing has to be cotton, has to be washed six times,” Hatton said.

In total, they found PFAS in 41 of the 81 water treatment plants sampled. Together those plants serve about half of Kentucky’s population.

In about 82 percent of those samples, researchers found levels under five parts per trillion. That means for every trillion molecules of drinking water, there are only five molecules of PFAS compounds. That’s far below the EPA’s advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

“What I would tell [the public] is based on the current state of science and the numbers that we have that their drinking water is below a level determined by the EPA to be safe for lifetime consumption,” Hatton said.

While these are extremely small amounts, they matter because they stick around. And scientists are divided on whether the level set by the EPA is sufficiently protective of human health.

There Forever

The class of compounds commonly referred to as “PFAS” are widely considered to be found in the blood of virtually every human on the planet.

Industry popularized the compounds in the 1940s because of their resistance to water, heat, oil and grease.

They’re made of carbon chains bonded by fluorine atoms, together forming one of the strongest bonds in organic chemistry, according to the state’s report.

That’s great when you’re making stuff, but it appears impossible for nature to break down… and that’s how they get their nickname “forever chemicals.”

Right now, Kentucky, like much of the country, has no reporting requirements for PFAS compounds and no discharge limits into watersheds like the Ohio River.

But the state is aware of about a half-dozen industrial manufacturers using PFAS compounds in the Commonwealth, Hatton said.

And one recycling facility in Henderson County has had problems with the release of PFAS compounds, he said. The state is currently working with the facility to try and clean up contamination associated with Teflon recycling.

“We have them under an agreed order, they have already begun to make some modifications to their process,” Hatton said.

Highest Concentrations

Researchers found the highest levels of contamination in Eastern Kentucky along the Ohio River in South Shore.

There officials detected PFOS and PFOA at 42.1 parts per trillion in the drinking water. The EPA health advisory recommends combining the numbers for both PFOS and PFOA, though it doesn’t mention other chemicals.

But if you were to add the other PFAS compounds found in the water in South Shore, that number would reach 65.67 parts per trillion, which is just shy of the EPA’s standard.

South Shore pulls its drinking water from groundwater that’s connected to the Ohio River. Right now, the Department of Environmental Protection is looking for industrial sources of contamination around its wellheads.

Floating Downriver

One of the most prolific sources of contamination in the Ohio is upriver from South Shore near Parkersburg, West Virginia.

The Washington Works Plant, originally owned by Dupont, began producing PFOA to make Teflon in the 1950s. In 2004, Dupont settled a class-action lawsuit for $343 million relating to PFOA contaminated drinking water. That plant, formerly owned by DuPont and now owned by Chemours, has also produced GenX, another compound in the PFAS family. 

That plant is just one of an unknown number of industrial sources that could be polluting the Ohio River because there are also no federal regulations for the compounds.

In Kentucky, researchers found a 100 percent detection rate for PFAS compounds in drinking water systems that use surface water from the Ohio River. Groundwater connected to the Ohio River saw PFAS detections in about 41 percent of samples, according to the report.

Louisville has seen similar detections. Researchers detected PFOS and PFOA at levels as high as 5.65 parts per trillion, and GenX at levels as high as 5.36 parts per trillion.

In October, WFPL News reported that Louisville Water Company and an environmental advocacy group had detected samples of PFAS compounds in the city’s water.

Over in Western Kentucky, Henderson Water Utility General Manager Tom Williams said he wasn’t surprised to learn about the 12.6 parts per trillion of GenX in the drinking water there.

“You know I think that’s what we expected from what we knew, from what had been reported in the river in other places,” he said. “We kind of expected that because it is kind of ubiquitous in the environment, it is everywhere.”

What You Can Do

About a dozen states have passed or are considering much stricter health standards for these chemicals, according to the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. New Hampshire and New Jersey have adopted standards ranging from 12 to 18 parts per trillion. New York is considering limiting levels to just 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences suggests that safe levels of PFAS chemicals are as low as .1 to 1 parts per trillion.

Peter Goodmann, Division of Water Director, said residents can remove PFAS compounds using reverse osmosis, or can remove most compounds using an activated carbon filter.

State officials say overall, the news for Kentucky is encouraging. The Energy and Environment Cabinet said it plans to continue testing for PFAS compounds and has a strategy in place moving forward.

“It’s a remarkable logistical accomplishment for our staff,” Goodmann said, “and they did it.”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.