Scientists are designing a new study to test for PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals”, along the entire length of the Ohio River. Concerns are mounting about PFAS contamination in drinking water systems along the Ohio Valley. Studies have shown the contaminants in the drinking water of dozens of cities.
The scientists work with a multi-state commission charged with overseeing water quality on the Ohio River known as the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO).
The commission’s work has always included monitoring pollution in the river and it makes sense to examine these emerging contaminants, executive director Richard Harrison said.
“There was a desire to look at ambient levels of PFAS in the river with this project,” Harrison said. “I believe this is a unique project just because of its focus.”
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of nearly 5,000 compounds used since the 1940s in everything from firefighting foam to waterproof clothing to nonstick pans. Because of their chemical structure, they’re near impossible to break down and are widely considered to be found in the blood of virtually every human on the planet.
The Environmental Protection Agency associates the chemicals with a wide range of health risks including reproductive harm, liver, kidney and thyroid disease, and cancer.
ORSANCO plans to conduct two rounds of testing across 20 locations to measure the ambient levels when the river is both high and low, from the headwaters to its confluence with the Mississippi River.
Harrison said it’s possible testing could begin as early as this fall. The commission plans to do the sampling while EPA is expected to do the analysis.
“This is an area where ORSANCO can really bring value to our stakeholders,” Harrison said.
The recent film “Dark Waters” starring Mark Ruffalo is based on the true story of Attorney Robert Bilott, who fought and won a legal battle against DuPont for releasing PFOA (another compound in the PFAS family) into the Ohio River.
That plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, formerly owned by DuPont and now owned by Chemours, has also produced GenX, yet another PFAS compound.
Last year, at least three groups in Kentucky detected a range of PFAS compounds in drinking water that came from the Ohio River including GenX, PFOS and PFOA.
In fact, researchers with Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet found the highest levels and the highest rates of detection in drinking water systems that pulled from waters connected to the Ohio River.
In Louisville, researchers detected three PFAS compounds at two different water treatment plants, according to the report. The Louisville Water Company and the Environmental Working Group have also detected PFAS compounds at low levels in Louisville drinking water.
All of the detections were far below the health advisory limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, those limits are currently under review and several states are calling for significantly lower standards.