Half of all the public drinking water systems tested in a new state report are showing evidence of PFAS contamination.
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.