Read the full article by Ryan Van Velzer (WFPL)

“Researchers have discovered the same man-made chemicals that coat non-stick pans and waterproof clothing are also ubiquitous in the Ohio River — a drinking water source for more than five million people, according to a new study from the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission. 

The report comes on the heels of revised guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that shows even trace amounts of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in finished drinking water could lead to adverse health impacts that have been linked with cancer and birth defects. 

On Friday, the eight-state commission that monitors water quality along the Ohio River released the results of a 2021 study that looked at PFAS levels at 20 sites along the full length of the Ohio River.

Researchers detected multiple PFAS compounds at every site and frequently found the chemicals at levels that would be concerning if they were found in finished drinking water. However, the EPA does not currently have any similar standards for what should be considered safe in rivers, lakes and other water bodies. 

ORSANCO Executive Director Richard Harrison said the study is a first-of-its-kind approach to understanding the baseline PFAS levels in the Ohio River, but should not be considered to be reflective of finished drinking water. Essentially, the EPA has to set a pollution standard for PFAS in waterways before it can be considered polluted, he said. 

‘To be able to characterize it as contamination, you have to have a criteria level that defines what is considered a contaminated level,’ he said. ‘We don’t have that for the Ohio River.’

Changing health standards

PFAS chemicals are sometimes called ‘forever chemicals’ because their carbon-fluorine chains are among the strongest chemical bonds in nature. They include a class of more than 12,000 chemicals used in everyday products: food wrappers, firefighting foam, carpeting and cosmetics. 

The company 3M developed and began using PFAS chemicals in the 1950s for products like Scotchguard. Today PFAS chemicals are found in soil, air, water, fish tissue, food and in people’s blood

The EPA has taken the closest look at two of the chemicals 3M developed: PFOA and PFOS. Up until last week, the agency had set a lifetime health advisory of a combined 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in finished drinking water.

The new limits for those are magnitudes lower, often below detection limits:

  • .004 ppt for PFOA
  • .02 ppt for PFOS

The EPA also added new guidelines for two other PFAS chemicals in drinking water:

  • 2,000 ppt for PFBS
  • 10 ppt for HFPO-DA (also known as GenX)

While those limits are only for finished drinking water, they can help contextualize the levels of ORSANCO found in the Ohio River, which serves as a drinking water source for millions.

ORSANCO conducted two rounds of sampling in summer and fall of 2021 across nearly two dozen sites along the roughly thousand-mile long river:

  • Every site had detections of one or more PFAS, though often at trace levels. 
  • At least 8 PFAS compounds were found frequently.
  • PFOA and GenX had the highest concentrations. 
    • PFOA was found a range from 4.88 ppt to 12.90 ppt
    • GenX was detected at nine sites with a range from 5.43 ppt to 32.2 ppt.”…