Tennessee Riverkeeper responds to new EPA drinking water guidelines

WAFF 48's Jasmyn Cornell reporting
Published: Jul. 11, 2022 at 5:02 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a warning that two nonstick and stain-resistant compounds found in drinking water are more dangerous than previously thought.

Those chemicals have been found in the Tennessee River and led to some major problems for local water departments.

“Tennessee Riverkeeper applauds the EPA for issuing such strict guidelines on drinking water, but they’re just guidelines. We need enforceable regulations for contaminated land and for drinking water standards,” said David Whiteside, founder of the Tennessee Riverkeeper.

On June 15, the EPA issued interim updated drinking water advisories for two types of PFAS, or per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, compounds known as PFOA and PFOS. These chemicals are also called forever chemicals.

Since the 1940s, these chemicals have been used in consumer products, including nonstick frying pans, stain-resistant rugs, and cosmetics, according to the Environment Working Group (EWG).

“These chemicals have a lot of interesting product properties for consumer goods. But unfortunately, they have very negative health impacts for human health and for citizens,” said Whiteside.

Numerous studies have linked the chemicals to health issues, such as thyroid disease and testicular cancer.

The EPA has also issued final health advisories for GenX chemicals, which is an alternative to PFOA, and PFBS chemicals, which are a replacement for PFOS.

The level for PFOA is .004 parts per trillion and for PFOS is .02 parts per trillion. The guidelines released in 2016 had those values set at 70 parts per trillion.

Health Advisories on PFAS Chemicals (Environmental Protection Agency)
Health Advisories on PFAS Chemicals (Environmental Protection Agency)(Health Advisories on PFAS Chemicals (Environmental Protection Agency))

“Our PFOA and PFAS are based on human studies in populations exposed to these chemicals. The 2016 health advisories were based on animal laboratory studies,” said Betsy Behl, representative of the EPA’s Office of Water.

“Unfortunately there are thousands of PFAS chemicals out there. So, it’s great news for those four that are very concerning, but it still leaves the door wide open for the 3M Company and DuPont and the other manufacturers to just keep manufacturing these alternative PFAS chemicals,” Whiteside said.

According to EWG, manufacturers, such as 3M and DuPont, are responsible for PFAS pollution. Whiteside says they’re responsible for the issue right here in the Tennessee Valley.

“The drinking water for the people of West Morgan and East Lawrence is more contaminated with PFAS because they are downstream from the 3M factory,” said Whiteside.

Jeaniece Slater with the West Morgan and East Lawrence Water Authority (WMEL) says they’ve experienced some difficulties with these chemicals in the past.

“We’re testing for about 49 compounds,” she said.

To remove the harmful compounds from the water, they use a system called reverse osmosis. Slater says there are no traces of those chemicals after filtration.

“We’re confident that we’re going to be able to meet, you know, the current and future EPA drinking water standards once those are set. You know, it’s just this system is basically the same system we use for bottled water. It actually breaks the water down to a water molecule, and so, therefore, it removes [and] strips everything from the water,” said Slater.

So, what is the EPA doing to address the thousands of other PFAS chemicals?

“I can say that EPA is doing a lot of work to try to understand the toxicity of these chemicals and where they occur. There’s work going on across all of the offices in the EPA to learn more about monitoring and detection and both human and ecological effects,” said Behl.

The EPA says it expects to propose national drinking water regulations for PFOA and PFOS later this year, with a final rule expected in 2023.

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