State officials to test local water for PFAS chemicals

Roger Kelso

STATE officials have stepped up efforts to test Columbus’ water system and help the city’s fire department dispose of material containing long-lasting and highly toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses.

In January, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management plans to start testing Columbus’ water for a class of chemicals called PFAS, said city utility director Roger Kelso.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a cluster of industrial chemicals associated with a variety of serious health conditions and have been used in products ranging from cookware to carpets and firefighting foams and consumer products since the 1940s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The testing is part of an effort to examine the prevalence of the chemicals in public water systems across the state and the efficacy of drinking water treatment, said Indiana Department of Environmental Health spokesman Barry Sneed.

The first round of testing took place last year, and state officials detected PFAS in treated drinking water in 10 counties, mainly in central and southern Indiana, according to IDEM.

The Nashville Water Department and North Vernon Water Department were included in the first round of testing, but no PFAS were detected in treated or untreated water at either utility.

However, PFAS were detected in untreated water at the Edinburgh Water Utility but not in finished drinking water.

Kelso said he believes there is a “pretty low probability that it’s in our system” because the aquifers that supply Columbus with water “are isolated from the rivers,” where PFAS contamination may be more likely.

However, it would not be the first time that an unregulated contaminant was detected in Columbus’ water supply. In 2017, two wells were shut down after tests revealed the presence of low amounts of 1,4 dioxane, an organic chemical used as an industrial solvent that the EPA considers to be a “likely human carcinogen.”

“It’s not impossible,” Kelso said, referring to whether PFAS could be detected in Columbus’ drinking water. “There are ways that things can get in there, but it’s not likely.”

“But it’s just really hard for us to know what we don’t know,” Kelso added. “…We’ll be geared up to start the testing in January as required.”

Currently, Columbus City Utilities does not test for PFAS because “they’re not a required item for us to test as of yet,” Kelso said. The utility’s most recent water quality report shows that Columbus’ drinking water met all state and federal standards last year.

‘They’re everywhere’

People can be exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways, according to the EPA.

The chemicals can be found in water, soil, air, food and numerous consumer products, including cleaning products, non-stick cookware, shampoo, dental floss and cosmetics.

Because PFAS have been used in many consumer products — in some cases since the 1940s — researchers believe that most Americans have been exposed to them.

Most people come into contact with PFAS by drinking contaminated water or eating food raised or grown around places where PFAS were made or used.

The chemicals first started showing up in human blood tests in the 1960s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By the turn of the century, an estimated 98% of Americans had detectable levels of PFAs in their blood.

“(PFAS) are everywhere,” said Marta Venier, an environmental chemist at Indiana University who studies PFAS.

Research suggests exposure to certain levels of PFAS can lead to reproductive effects in humans, developmental delays, increased risks for certain cancers, elevated cholesterol levels and weaken the immune system, according to the EPA.

Chemical manufacturing workers and firefighters are believed to be among those with the highest risk of exposure, according to the CDC.

“The effects will depend on how much PFAS you are exposed to,” Venier said. “For example, if you work in an industry that manufactures PFAS, then you’re exposed to a significantly higher level than if you are a regular person.”

Firefighting foam

One source of PFAS exposure that is drawing the attention of environmental regulators is a firefighting foam that has been used by fire departments across the country for decades, including in Columbus.

The foam, known as Class B aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, is generally used to extinguish flammable liquid fires, particularly in incidents involving aircraft.

The Columbus Fire Department had 300 gallons of PFAS-containing foam as of May, when state officials helped the department safely dispose of the material, said Columbus Fire Department spokesman Mike Wilson.

The foam was stored in five-gallon buckets in the department’s garage facility in the Columbus Air Park, Wilson said. The material was removed at no charge to the department.

However, the department still has 100 gallons of the foam in case of a flammable liquid fire involving aircraft at Columbus Municipal Airport.

“We have those actually still in use at this time, and that’s used specifically for aircraft incidents,” Wilson said.

Wilson couldn’t recall the last time that Columbus firefighters used the foam because the department doesn’t often deal with aircraft incidents. Local firefighters do not train with that type of foam, he said.

The department mainly uses Class A foam, which is recommended for residential fires and does not contain PFAS, Wilson said.

“As far as I’m aware, I haven’t heard of a major incident where we’ve had a major spill of any foam products,” Wilson said.

However, Wilson said exposure to PFAS “is a concern for us, as it is for any type of fire situation we respond to.”

“Our job is inherently a dangerous job in terms of exposures,” Wilson said. “…We’re exposed to so many toxins just through the course of our operations as it is now, even on residential fires.”

“Exposures are certainly always on our mind, and we try to take as many precautions as we can to limit those,” Wilson added. “Unfortunately, firefighters all across the country are exposed and are getting cancer.”

New regulations?

The efforts from state officials come as the EPA plans to propose a national drinking water standard for certain PFAS later this year, the agency said.

Last month, the EPA warned that two of the most widely used and studied PFAS — known as PFOA and PFOS — are more dangerous than previously thought and pose health risks even at levels so low they cannot currently be detected, The Associated Press reported.

On June 15, the EPA issued nonbinding health advisories that set health risk thresholds for PFOA and PFOS to near zero, replacing 2016 guidelines that had set them at 70 parts per trillion, according to wire reports. The chemicals are found in products including cardboard packaging, carpets and firefighting foam.

On Thursday, the House voted 329-101 to pass the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, which, among other things, contains provisions to expands a CDC study on PFAS contamination.

Congressional records show that Rep. Greg Pence, R-Indiana, voted against the bill, though nearly 71% of House Republicans were in favor of the measure.

“At this time, Congressman Pence could not support this legislation in its current form,” said Hannah Osantowske, Pence’s press secretary. “There were countless amendments Democrats tucked into this legislation in the 11th hour that had nothing to do with our nation’s defense. The congressman will have another opportunity to vote on this bill, and continues to closely track this legislation and expects to see a cleaner version of the NDAA in the coming weeks.”

Experts are concerned that the U.S. is only testing for just a fraction of the thousands of PFAS that are known to be in existence.

“We’re really only measuring the tip of the iceberg,” Venier said. “…We don’t even know what is out there. We know from a commercial point of view that there are 10,000 PFAS out there, but we don’t know what they are because all of these formulations are covered by trade secrets.”

“We don’t know what’s out there, and even less, we don’t know if they can be harmful,” she added.