State drinking water system testing has detected PFAS chemicals in the treated drinking water of at least two Indiana communities, according to limited preliminary results.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management found PFAS chemicals in both treated and untreated water at Indiana American Water’s Charlestown Water System in Clark County and the Morgan County Rural Water Corp.
PFAS chemicals were also detected in the untreated water at Hartford City Water Works in Blackford County and Aurora Utilities in Dearborn County.
The results are the first released by IDEM during the first phase of its PFAS community water system sampling project. The first phase tested community water systems that serve between 3,300 and 10,000 people for 18 PFAS chemicals.
The results do not indicate an immediate health risk to the members of the community where PFAS was found, but long-term exposure could result in some negative health effects.
PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s to produce industrial products resistant to water, oil, grease and stains. The products are mostly known by their brand names, like Teflon, Gore-Tex, Scotchgard and many others.
The chemicals have been called “forever chemicals” due to their persistence, meaning they do not break down and instead accumulate in the human body and the environment. PFAS chemicals have been found in the blood of 97% of Americans.
PFAS chemicals have been linked to a series of adverse health conditions, including an increased risk of developing kidney and testicular cancer, increased blood cholesterol levels, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia and decreased vaccine response in children.
The agency said none of the community water systems had results that were above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s non-enforceable lifetime health advisories for PFOS and PFOA, a suggested limit on the two chemicals that serves as one of the only existing federal regulations on PFAS.
PFOS and PFOA are only two of thousands of PFAS chemicals. Other PFAS chemicals are largely unregulated in Indiana. The federal government only requires companies to report several dozen PFAS chemicals, leaving the public in the dark about chemicals that could be produced or used near them.
By some estimates, up to 200 million people in the U.S. could be receiving tap water tainted with at least low levels of PFAS.
PFAS chemicals have been found to travel from industrial facilities to groundwater and eventually into downstream drinking water.
A study in North Carolina found that air and water emissions of PFAS chemicals from a Chemours Company facility made their way into groundwater near the facility and into five tributaries of the Cape Fear River. The PFAS made its way to the river, impacting downriver drinking water supplies and fish living in the river.
The Indiana communities where PFAS chemicals were detected are all downstream from potential industrial sources of PFAS chemical pollution.
Indiana American Water’s Charlestown Water System and Aurora Utilities are located near the Ohio River, long known as a dumping ground for unregulated PFAS chemicals from industrial sources upriver.
IDEM detected PFHxA, a PFAS chemical used on food packaging and household products, and PFOA, a PFAS chemical used to make Teflon and other products, in the Charlestown water system.
IDEM detected another PFAS chemical similar to PFOA, called PFNA, in untreated water used by Aurora Utilities.
The movie “Dark Waters” starring Mark Ruffalo recently featured the story of attorney Rob Bilott’s struggle to connect a series of health problems around a DuPont de Nemours, Inc. production facility in Parkersburg, West Virginia that used PFOA, also known as C8, to health issues in the surrounding community.
Other potential upstream PFAS sources include the INEOS USA LLC chemical manufacturing facility in Addyston, Ohio, which produces PFAS chemicals and polymers, and similar facilities along the Ohio River.
Indiana American Water, which purchased the Charlestown water system in 2019, told the Indiana Environmental Reporter it has invested more than $4 million in the aging water system and has begun construction on a new $16 million water treatment facility designed to enable to the addition of a PFAS removal process in the future. The company said the facility is expected to be completed and placed in service in mid-2022.
“Indiana American Water has performed voluntary sampling of both our raw and finished water to better understand certain occurrences of PFAS levels. Continued testing also allows Indiana American Water to be better prepared when the US EPA or state environmental regulators develop a drinking water standard for those PFAS for which we have US EPA approved testing methods,” Indiana American Water external affairs manager Joe Loughmiller said in an email.
“PFAS contamination is one of the most rapidly changing areas in the drinking water field. We have invested in our own independent research, as well as engaging with other experts in the field to understand PFAS occurrence in the environment,” he said. “We are also actively assessing treatment technologies that can effectively remove PFAS from drinking water, because we believe that investment in research is critically important to addressing this issue.”
PFAS contamination is also affecting water systems along other waterways.
IDEM found evidence of PFBS, a PFAS chemical used in water- and stain-resistant coatings, and PFHxA at the Morgan County Rural Water Corp.
Morgan County Rural Water Corp. pumps ground water from its well field in Morgan County supplied from the White River. The PFAS pollution that passes from the river to groundwater could come from multiple chemical, plastic and petroleum industrial manufacturers or hazardous waste facilities in Indianapolis.
The Environmental Working Group in 2020 compiled a list of suspected PFAS users, finding 14 Indianapolis facilities suspected of using PFAS, including chemical, metal and cosmetics manufacturers. All are along the White River or waterways that feed into it, potentially allowing the transport of PFAS chemicals downriver.
IDEM said it detected PFOS in the Hartford City Water Works system, a PFAS chemical that could be coming from sources a short distance away.
IDEM has not said when it will release preliminary results for the remaining systems tested in the first phase of testing or when it would finalize the first batch of results.
The agency said it has begun taking samples from water systems in the second phase of testing, those serving less than 3,300 people.
At the federal level, the EPA has begun the process to add four PFAS chemicals, PFOA, PFOS, PFBS and GenX, to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Hazardous Constituents list. The addition would give the EPA authority to require investigation and cleanup for those four chemicals.
The U.S. House of Representatives in August passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, a bill that would require the EPA, among other things, to designate some PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, otherwise known as the Superfund law.
That designation would allow the EPA to clean up areas polluted with PFAS chemicals under the Superfund program.
The bill is now being considered by the U.S. Senate.