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Village Council | ‘Forever chemicals’ in municipal water

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Nine droplets in 13 hypothetical million-gallon water towers.

That’s the analogy Yellow Springs Water and Wastewater Superintendent Brad Ault used to describe the minute volume of toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — otherwise known as “forever chemicals” — that were detected in the municipal water supply during tests conducted earlier this year.

In a presentation given at the most recent Village Council meeting Monday, Oct. 2, Ault told Council members that although he and his crews are pleased with their findings, the local water department aims to continue to monitor the wellfield and treatment plant for chemical contaminants, per newly proposed regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.

In March of this year, the EPA announced the first enforceable national drinking water standards for PFAS in municipal water supplies across the country — including Yellow Springs.

Presently, the EPA’s health advisory limit for concentrated PFAS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion gallons. Under the new regulations, a maximum level of contamination in drinking water — at which no known or anticipated adverse health effects would occur upon consumption — would be set at four parts per trillion. Municipalities will be given three years to meet the new standard.

Out of 30 samples the Village water department took this April, only one registered above the detection limit at 9.2 parts per trillion — a level significantly below the current health advisory limit, but above the proposed maximum level of contamination.

PFAS are widely used, long-lasting chemicals that break down slowly over time; they have been found in water, air and soil samples around the globe; and according to ongoing EPA and scientific research, they may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals.

Over the last century, these chemicals have been used to make carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, food packaging and cookware resistant to water and stains. They are also used in firefighting foams at airfields and in a number of industrial and manufacturing processes.

At Monday’s meeting, Ault explained that the samples that contained PFAS were taken from one of four water wells in the Village’s underground wellfield, which is located just west of the Little Miami River at the southern edge of Miami Township. The contaminated well — “well number two,” as Ault referred to it — sits closest to the surface, and owing to its shallow depth, may have been contaminated with PFAS that came from surface water, he said.

“But where exactly these contaminants are coming from, I can’t say,” Ault said. “These chemicals are everywhere — they’re in almost everything we use.”

On the ubiquity of these chemicals, a 2022 study in the journal “Environmental Science and Technology” found that unsafe levels of PFAS are present even in global rainwater. As the study indicates, PFAS appear in the atmosphere from sea spray aerosols, and from there, continue into rainwater systems and precipitate into the ground.

The extent to which PFAS negatively impact one’s health remains uncertain.

As the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes on its website, research on the matter is ongoing, but a number of studies suggest that high levels of certain PFAS — such as perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate — may lead to increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreases in infant birth weights, increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, decreased vaccine response in children and other negative health outcomes.

Ault told Council members that while his water department will continue to monitor PFAS levels in the municipal supply, as well as work to meet the EPA’s impending new, stricter standards, removing the chemicals entirely from the well is a notoriously difficult task.

“We can take down [‘well number two’] and possibly look into how other wells could be contaminated, but right now, the technology just isn’t there,” he said. “There’s no way to remove PFAS.”

Ault did, however, reference a “granular-activated carbon” treatment that could potentially capture PFAS, which would then be taken out of the water and incinerated.

“But then you have ash with PFAS that would be sent to the landfill — still contaminated,” he said. “And that’s a very expensive treatment. No water plants around here do it because it’s not cost effective.”

Of the precipitous costs associated with mitigating PFAS-contaminated water, Council President Kevin Stokes said the group is committed to budgeting for ongoing water treatment and monitoring.

“From a budget perspective, hopefully we’ll find out what the [EPA] requirements are going to be by early next year, but we’ll still have three years to get everything together,” Stokes said, noting the EPA’s implementation timeline for the new regulations. “Even if it’s an onerous fee or cost, we’ll have a couple of budget cycles.”

The News will continue to report on the Village Water and Wastewater Department’s ongoing efforts to study and mitigate the impacts of PFAS in the municipal water supply as new sample data emerges in the coming months.

The next Village Council meeting is Monday, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m.

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2 Responses to “Village Council | ‘Forever chemicals’ in municipal water”

  1. David Turner says:

    “Nine drops in 13 hypothetical million-gallon water towers.” means we’ve already spent more time than it’s worth on this. I wonder how much dinosaur pee is in the water? So-called “alkaline” water filtration systems are notoriously inefficient: 5 gallons of water down the drain for every one gallon of filtered water. The filters are pricey at $100 or so for the three needed for many systems, and manufacturers tell users that they should replace them every 3 to 6 months! Just drink the water and stop worrying,you’ll be fine.

  2. DinkingWater says:

    Do over the counter tap water filterization systems work to filter out these chemicals from drinking water?

    If they do, perhaps those systems should be handed out to those who cannot afford them, like smoke detectors are for health preservation.

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