Environment

It’s in food packaging, non-stick pans, paint, cleaning products and firefighting foams.

It’s likely in your blood. It’s probably in my blood. And if it wasn’t there before, it could be there now. That is, if you’re drinking Louisville tap water.

The Environmental Working Group, an organization that tracks environmental pollutants in consumer products, found 10 PFAS compounds in a sample of Louisville drinking water taken from a home in July, according to data from the group.

Louisville Water Company said the levels identified in the report are similar to what the company’s researchers are seeing in their own samples.

“One sample, like we saw in the study that was released, it really doesn’t drive the standards that we operate under,” said Kelley Dearing-Smith, spokeswoman. “However what the levels in this report show as it relates to the PFAS family of compounds is very similar to what Louisville Water is seeing in our own research.”

PFAS compounds form a class of nearly 5,000 widely used chemicals that linger virtually forever in the environment and are associated with a wide range of health risks. Those include developmental and reproductive harm, liver, kidney and thyroid disease, and cancer. New evidence suggests they could even reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, said Melanie Benesh, an environmental attorney with the EWG.

“These are incredibly well studied chemicals that are associated with many different health risks,” Benesh said. “And virtually every human being has at least some level of PFAS in their blood already.”

The highest levels detected in Louisville drinking water came from a chemical known as Gen X — a replacement to PFOA used in Teflon products like non-stick pans. Even though it’s a replacement, research indicates it may still pose health risks such as liver and kidney toxicity.

The EWG sample detected 22 parts per trillion in Louisville water — meaning that for every trillion parts water, there were 22 parts Gen X. Louisville Water Company’s own sample from July found 8 ppt while a sample from September discovered 24 ppt.

The total amount for all 10 PFAS compounds found in the EWG sample amounted to 45.2 ppt in Louisville drinking water.

These are very small amounts. Right now guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency are 70 ppt for PFAS compounds, but that guideline has been widely panned by scientists as not sufficiently protective of human health, and is currently under review.  

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 ppt. New York is considering limiting levels to just 10 ppt for PFOA and PFOS.

And the latest science from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences suggests that safe levels of PFAS chemicals are as low as .1 to 1 ppt.

But Dearing-Smith said customers do not need to be concerned with the quality of Louisville drinking water.

“We hang our hat on public health and water quality and that’s why we are in business,” she said. “Based on what we are seeing and based on the guidance we are having from the EPA, we believe that our water, and we know that our water meets and exceeds all those strict standards.”

Nearly one million people drink Louisville water every day, according to an annual report. In 2008, American Water Works Association named Louisville Water Company the “best-tasting tap water in the world,” and bourbon makers have praised Louisville water as a secret ingredient to Kentucky’s bourbon.  

Which is why it may be surprising to some that Louisville Water Company pulls its water from the Ohio River, one of the most polluted waterways in the country, before undergoing treatment.

Benesh with the Environmental Working Group said there are virtually no limits or reporting requirements for PFAS compounds, including no federal discharge limits into watersheds like the Ohio River.  

As a result, it’s pretty much impossible to know exactly where all of these chemicals are coming from. One potential source, however, could be the Washington Works Plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, upriver on the Ohio from Louisville. That plant, formerly owned by DuPont and now owned by Chemours, used PFOA and later used GenX. Chemours did not immediately return a request for comment.

“We know that these chemicals are forever chemicals so once they’re released into the river like the Ohio River, they stay there forever and are highly mobile,” Benesh said. “So it’s very possible that these chemicals have flowed downstream from that Washington Works Plant.”

It is possible to greatly reduce the amount of these very small PFAS compounds from drinking water using water treatment techniques such as reverse osmosis, ion exchange or granular activated carbon. Based on the available science, Benesh recommends water companies take action now.

“I think water companies should be proactive about testing their water for PFAS chemicals and they should treat for it,” she said.

Louisville Water Company has been testing monthly for PFOS and PFOA for the last three or four years. Results ranged from finding nothing at all to as high as 13 ppt for PFOA, Dearing-Smith said.

In the last year, Louisville Water has begun testing for eight or nine other PFAS chemicals, she said.

However, Louisville Water Company does not treat for PFAS compounds and Dearing-Smith said the company does not plan on modifying its treatment strategy anytime soon.

“Based on what we see with the research and based on what we see coming from the EPA in the next couple of years or even less than that, then we would determine do we need to modify our treatment strategy in order to meet the [regulations],” Dearing-Smith said.

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