Rome, Georgia — The intake pumps that once drew 6 million gallons of water a day from the Oostanaula River now sit mostly dormant in this northwestern Georgia city.
Local officials contend that years of contamination miles upstream sent toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, into Rome’s water supply, rendering it potentially dangerous for the city’s roughly 37,000 residents. A water source switch from the Oostanaula and added treatment have reduced the traces of the chemicals running through residents’ taps, but they have not eliminated PFAS from the community’s water supply.
The contamination found in Rome has been heard in communities across the country, as regulators and researchers wrestle with the implications of the widespread chemicals. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency has accelerated the debate. The EPA launched its June campaign. issued new advisoriesPFAS in drinking-water that reduces the level regulators consider safe for four chemicals within the family, including PFOA, PFOS, and PFOA.
The EPA’s health advisories aren’t legally enforceable. The agency is expected to propose new limits for PFAS in public drinking water systems this year. If those drinking water regulations mirror the EPA’s latest advisories, water system operators nationwide will need to act to address the presence of those chemicals.
“It’s quite an important message,” said Dr. Philippe Grandjean, a PFAS expert and an adjunct environmental health professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This stuff is everywhere.’’
The Environmental Working Group, a research- and advocacy organization that tracks PFAS said it has logged more. 2,800 sitesThere are currently no U.S. states with PFAS contamination. Public records show that chemicals have been detected in water samples from small towns like Rome, churches, schools, military bases, nursing home, and municipal water supplies. big cities like Chicago.
They are also found in nearly every American’s bloodAccording to studies, it is. And some PFAS compounds bioaccumulate — meaning that chemical concentrations are not easily cleared in the body and instead increase over time as people consume trace amounts each day.
July: report from the National Academiesof Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that PFAS testing be offered to those who are likely to have been exposed to high levels by their jobs or live in areas with known PFAS contamination. Grandjean, who helped review the report for the National Academies, said the committee concluded that “people have a right to know their exposure level and to be offered proper health care follow-up.” He said that doing so is “very important and, in my mind, necessary.”
Both the EPA advisories and the National Academies’ report follow steady grassroots efforts to curb PFAS chemicals, which have been used in consumer products for decades. Since their invention in the 1940s, the compounds — known by the moniker “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down quickly — have been widely applied to household and industrial products, including carpet, waterproof clothes, and nonstick cookware.
PFAS’ presence in firefighting foam, food packaging, and even dental floss poses an ongoing challenge. And efforts to reduce PFAS resemble the often-frustrating, decades-long campaign to eliminate another environmental hazard — lead — from homes, soil, and water.
“There has been a dramatic increase in advocacy and public awareness about PFAS,” said Alissa Cordner, an expert on the chemicals and an environmental sociology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
Researchers for the National Academies stated that they found links between PFAS and four conditions: decreased immune system, elevated cholesterol, decreased infant growth and increased risk for kidney cancer. The report also suggested a possible link between the chemicals and breast and testicular cancers, liver enzyme changes, thyroid disease, and increased risk.
And EPA officials said the agency’s latest advisories are based on new science and account for indications “that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero.”
Most states don’t regulate PFAS, though.
Jamie DeWitt, a professor at East Carolina University of pharmacology, stated that EPA advisories are important. “The message from the EPA is that if these PFAS can be detected in drinking water, they pose health risks,” she said.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, pushed back against the advisories and recently asked a federal court to vacate them, saying that the agency process was “scientifically flawed and procedurally improper” and set “impossibly low standards for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.” In a June statement, the council said PFAS have important uses, including in renewable energy efforts and medical supplies.
One producer of PFAS, 3M, said in a statement that the company “acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.”
The compounds’ development took off with initial hits in Teflon and later Scotchgard. DeWitt explained that although there are over 12,000 variants, only 150 are currently being studied by scientists and government agencies.
U.S. manufacturers voluntarily phased out PFOS and PFOA, the two most extensively produced, but they’re still found in drinking water. The city of Rome is among 10 North Georgia communities where PFOS or PFOA have been found in drinking water supplies at higher levels than the EPA advisories declare is safe, the state’s environmental regulatory agency said.
Six years ago, officials in Rome were forced to switch the city’s water supply from the Oostanaula to the nearby Etowah River, a brownish tributary that merges with the Oostanaula near a downtown bridge. The water was potentially hazardous because of years of chemical contamination in Oostanaula, according to Rome officials. It is located dozens of kilometres upstream in Dalton. They claimed that in Dalton, the epicenter for U.S. carpet production, industrial waste containing PFAs leaked into the Conasauga River which flows into Oostanaula.
Officials in Rome plan to build a $100 million reverse-osmosis filtering system to remove the chemicals from the city’s water supply. Although the ratepayers will cover the cost, the city has filed a lawsuit against carpet producers and their chemical suppliers to seek to recover those costs. A separate lawsuit, filed by a Rome resident who is also a ratepayer, makes similar allegations against the upstream businesses. The allegations were denied by the defendants in the Rome-based suits.
The EPA has announced $1 billion in grant fundingSo that states can address PFAS in drinking water. However, modifications to the public water systems across the country will likely outstrip this allocation quickly.
Downstream from Rome officials in Alabama’s cities of Centre, Gadsden and Gadsden reported high levels of PFAS and filed lawsuits against carpet manufacturers. The Gadsden lawsuit will go to trial in October.
Over the past two centuries, litigation has been intensely focused on chemicals. A Bloomberg Law analysisMore than 6,400 PFAS-related lawsuits were filed in federal court between July 2005 & March 2022.
Substantial settlements followed. Chemours and DuPont, who made PFAS products over decades, settled more that 3,500 lawsuits for $670 million in 2017. Both companies denied wrongdoing. 3M settled a lawsuit against the state Minnesota for $850 million. The same company settled litigation in Decatur, Alabama, for $98 millions.
Cordner stated that the EPA should now be able to look wider at the many chemicals. “The persistence of PFAS means we’ll be dealing with this for a long time,” she said. “Because of their sheer quantity, we need to treat PFAS as a class. We can’t go chemical by chemical.”
Tim Carroll, an EPA spokesperson, said in an email KHNAgency is currently working on dividing the large class PFAS into smaller categories based upon similarities in chemical structure, chemical properties, toxicological properties, and physical properties. That work, he said, would “accelerate the effectiveness of regulations, enforcement actions, and the tools and technologies needed to remove PFAS from air, land, and water.”
Some companies and the military decided to discontinue using the chemicals.
The Green Science Policy Institute is an environmental advocacy group that has developed a list of PFAS-free productsIt includes rain gear, apparel, shoes, cosmetics, and toothpaste.
Two years ago, Home Depot and Lowe’s said they wouldn’t sell carpets or rugs with PFAS in them. Milliken, a textile manufacturer, announced this year that it will eliminate all PFAS from its facilities by 2022.
A few flooring companies followed suit. Shaw Industries, a Dalton-based flooring company, stated that it has stopped using PFAS as soil and stain treatment for residential and commercial carpet products.
The Coosa River Basin Initiative is a Rome-based environmental advocacy group that has been closely following the PFAS issue. Its executive director, Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, said the EPA has moved “at lightning speed’’ on PFAS, compared with other agency actions.
But unless the eventual regulations are sweeping and the cleanups extensive, he said, “we the people will be guinea pigs for PFAS-related health problems.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News)This national newsroom produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling KHNThis is one of three major operating programs. KFF(Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information to the nation on health issues.
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