Equilibrium & Sustainability

Most US waterways plagued by ‘forever chemicals’: analysis

AP Photo/Steve Helber
A non-permeable cover tops Coal Ash Basin B along the banks of the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake, Va., Wednesday, July 6, 2016.

More than 83 percent of U.S. waterways recently sampled in a nationwide survey were contaminated by cancer-linked “forever chemicals,” a new analysis has revealed.

Out of 114 rivers and creeks assessed across the country, 95 showed detectable levels of these toxic compounds, according to the analysis, conducted by the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Nearly all these waterways were contaminated by at least one type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — of which there are thousands — while multiple PFAS compounds were present in most of the samples, the study determined.

In some spots — such as the creeks connected to the Potomac River in Maryland, the Lower Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and the Niagara River in New York — contamination levels were thousands to hundreds of thousands times higher than what experts have deemed safe for drinking water, the researchers warned.

“When we began testing waterways for PFAS earlier this year, we knew that our country had a significant PFAS problem, but these findings confirm that was an understatement,” Marc Yaggi, CEO of Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a statement.

Known for their presence in jet fuel firefighting foam and industrial discharge, PFAS are also key ingredients in a variety of household products.

Living up to their “forever chemical” epithet, these compounds tend to linger in both the human body and the environment. They have been linked to many illnesses, such as thyroid disease, kidney cancer and testicular cancer.

While the survey was a nationwide effort, the work on the ground occurred via 113 local Waterkeeper branches, which took samples in 34 states and in the District of Columbia this past May through July.

The groups took a total of 228 samples from 114 rivers and creeks in these territories and ran laboratory analyses for 55 types of PFAS, according to the study. The researchers said they identified 35 of the 55 individual PFAS in at least one sampled waterway.

The most frequent types of PFAS detected were PFOA and PFOS — the two most notorious types of forever chemicals, for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently tightened its health advisory limits.

PFOS was detected above the EPA’s interim health advisory level — of 0.02 parts per trillion — at 159 of the 228 sampling sites, or 70 percent of those surveyed.

For reference, 1 part per trillion is approximately equivalent to one droplet in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

The highest level of PFOS detected was 1,364.7 parts per trillion — in a sample from Piscataway Creek, Maryland taken by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Meanwhile, PFOA was identified above the EPA’s interim health advisory level of 0.004 parts per trillion in 158 of the samples taken, according to the analysis.

The greatest concentration of PFOA was 847 parts per trillion — in a sample from Kreutz Creek, Pennsylvania, collected by the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper.

Another notorious type of PFAS, called GenX, was detected in four samples from three waterways: the Saluda River in South Carolina, the Cape Fear River in North Carolina and Tar Creek in Oklahoma, according to the study.

Concentrations of GenX exceeded the EPA’s health advisory level of 10 parts per trillion in one sample taken from the Cape Fear River, which reached 25.8 parts per trillion, the researchers found.

A fourth common type of PFAS, known as PFBS, was observed in 118 out of the 228 sampling sites, according to the analysis. PFBS levels exceeded the EPA’s threshold of 2,000 parts per trillion in one sample — 2,083.3 parts per trillion — from Kreutz Creek in Pennsylvania.

Given these findings, the authors demanded that Congress and the EPA “act with urgency to control and remediate persistence PFAS contamination across the country.”

While experts estimate that nearly 30,000 facilities are discharging PFAS into surface waters and wastewater treatment plants daily, there are no federal limits exist for such releases, the researchers stressed.

“PFAS must be replaced in manufacturing processes with safer alternatives,” Bob Bowcock, founder of the Integrated Resource Management environmental compliance firm, said in a statement.

“Non-essential uses should end,” added Bowcock, who provided third-party review for the analysis.

“Industrial discharges must be stopped,” he said. “Cleanup of highly contaminated sites should be prioritized.”

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