Read the full article by Lauren Kirchner (Consumer Reports)

“As the general manager of a water utility, it’s Timothy Hagey’s job to make sure the 33,000 residents of Warminster, Pa., have clean drinking water. Even so, he had never heard of PFAS, or the risks to human health the chemicals posed, until he got a phone call from the state’s environmental protection department in 2014 telling him a test showed that his town’s wells were contaminated with them. 

The test, part of a nationwide survey conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, had discovered high levels of the chemicals, then unregulated, in a handful of places across the country. A possible source of PFAS in Warminster’s case: Two nearby military bases that had been allowing firefighting foam made with the chemicals to leach into the groundwater for decades. 

Hagey Googled. He made phone calls. He learned about the emerging science tying PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, to kidney and testicular cancer and lowered immune responses. He discovered that while technology for treating water in municipal systems contaminated by PFAS existed, options were limited and costs were high. 

Even though there was no law requiring him to clean up his town’s water, Hagey knew that’s what he had to do. His first difficult task: to tell everyone in the town about the problem.

A representative for the Defense Department declined to comment on the specifics of Warminster’s case but says that the U.S. military ‘remains committed to fulfilling our cleanup responsibilities’ and preventing further spread of PFAS from its bases.

Almost a decade later, scientists know a lot more about the dangers of PFAS, and that even very small amounts of it can be harmful. They also know that many more communities than the handful identified by the EPA at that time are affected. 

In fact, the EPA now estimates that up to 94 million Americans get their water from PFAS-contaminated systems. That’s about 28 percent of the population—more than 1 in 4 of us. 

In the absence of federal enforcement of PFAS, some states have recently begun to test for it and limit its levels. But many towns and cities in the country are not routinely testing their water for these chemicals.

That’s likely about to change. In March, the EPA proposed the first-ever federal limits on six different PFAS in drinking water; if the proposal becomes law, within three years every municipality in the country will be required to regularly test its water for PFAS and to keep the chemicals at or under those maximums. 

Experts say the cleanup is essential, but will also be very hard and very expensive. 

Water utilities that find their water is over the EPA’s limits will have to treat the water, dilute it with cleaner water diverted from nearby sources, or both. The American Water Works Association, a water industry trade group, estimates that at least 5,000 water utilities across the country will have to either install new PFAS treatment systems or find new water sources, and an additional 2,500 will have to undergo costly overhauls or upgrades to their existing filtration systems.

Hagey says it took about two years and $2.5 million, but a new system that uses resin-based filters to remove PFAS was installed in Warminster, and the chemicals are no longer detectable in the community’s water. Now Hagey wants to share what he has learned in the process. At a recent public forum that the EPA hosted over Zoom, he gave his contact information to other water utilities officials who might need help navigating the issue when they, too, find out their water has been contaminated with PFAS. 

Growing Risks

PFAS are a huge class of chemicals made since the 1940s by 3M and DuPont for their nonstick and stain-resistant properties. They are now used in the manufacture of countless consumer goods, like nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, and food packaging. They are called ‘forever chemicals’ because their chemical bonds are difficult to break, and they can last for hundreds of years in soil and water. Research suggests PFAS can now be found in the blood of humans worldwide.

New research is coming out all the time linking PFAS to health problems. In addition to its cancer and immune system risks, recent studies have connected it to obesity, female infertility, and hormonal changes that can affect child development.

Since the EPA survey a decade ago, the levels at which scientists believe PFAS to be hazardous to health have gotten lower and lower, while testing technology has gotten better and better. So for instance, when Warminster’s water was tested a decade ago, some PFAS could only be detected down to 10 parts per trillion and others only as low as 90 ppt; the EPA’s health advisory suggested that exposure to over 750 ppt could be dangerous. Hagey’s town was flagged because one of the worst wells in the system tested at over 1,000 ppt.

Then, in 2016 the EPA lowered its health advisory to 70 ppt for two of the most closely studied chemicals in the group, PFOS and PFOA. In 2022, the agency drastically dropped those health advisories to 0.02 and 0.004 ppt—levels so low they cannot be detected. The new proposed regulation the EPA announced in March set the levels at a more technically feasible 4 ppt for each of those two.

One part per trillion, for perspective, is the equivalent of a single drop of PFAS in the amount of water it would take to fill twenty Olympic-sized swimming pools. Many other contaminants that water utilities are used to dealing with, like lead and arsenic, are measured in the parts per million or billion, which speaks to the extreme toxicity of PFAS.

Searching for Solutions

In the decade since PFAS was discovered in Warminster’s wells, advancements in PFAS-filtration technology mean utilities now have a few options to choose from. One is to use filters—whether carbon or resin—that bond to and remove PFAS from water as it flows through them. 

But filtering water is only the first, and not even the most complicated step, in dealing with PFAS pollution.

Harder: Figuring out what to do with the removed PFAS. Other contaminants in water, like lead or arsenic, are put in landfills after filtering. But in the case of PFAS, the filters themselves also need to be replaced every few years, or decontaminated—a process that involves industrial incinerators because very high heat is needed to break the chemical bonds of PFAS.

This further drives up the cost of remedying PFAS contamination. And the incineration process itself is potentially problematic: Experts and the EPA concede that they do not yet know whether incineration completely destroys all PFAS or if some are emitted into the air. 

These issues will create ‘a tsunami of opportunity’ and drive innovation, says Rob Craw, president and CEO of AqueoUS Vets, a company that builds PFAS filter systems for water utilities. But meanwhile, the challenges will complicate the situation for the nation’s water utilities, especially smaller ones in municipalities with less cash on hand, as demand for the filters and services will soon overwhelm supply and capacity. It can take years to design and build new filtration systems if current ones can’t be retrofitted.

‘I’m afraid to really think about the gravity of this,’ Craw says. ‘Is it great for business? Sure it is. But someone’s got to pay for it. Who is that someone?’ 

Who’s Going to Pay for PFAS Cleanup?

The cost of overhauling old systems or building new ones is going to be staggering. The American Water Works Association estimates it could exceed $2.5 to $3.2 billion every year for the next several decades. The chemicals are ‘forever,’ of course, and they are still widely used in manufacturing and thus are entering the ecosystem every day. 

The thousands of water utilities that are about to find they have a PFAS cleanup problem on their hands may be able to apply for grant money from their states, if some is available. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in 2021 includes $9 billion for states and water utilities to address ‘PFAS and other emerging contaminants,’ and those funds are beginning to be distributed now. 

‘That’s a lot of money that’s available,’ Erik Olson, senior strategic director at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, says of the infrastructure funds, ‘but it’s not going to be enough.’

To help make up the difference, some towns, cities, and states are pursuing the polluters, to make them pay for the cleanup. Their targets can include the original manufacturers of PFAS, the companies that used PFAS to make their products, or the institutions that used PFAS-containing firefighting foam without taking care to dispose of it properly.

Some of the biggest manufacturers of PFAS—3M, Chemours, and DuPont—announced in June 2023 that they were pursuing financial settlements with U.S. public water utilities for alleged contamination of the drinking water from firefighting foam. The companies are among dozens of defendants facing litigation from not just utilities, but thousands of individuals claiming personal injury or property damage, as well as entire cities and states attempting to recoup the cost of PFAS cleanup.

3M announced June 22 that it would be resolving the lawsuit with a settlement of $10.3 billion to be paid to public water systems in the U.S. that either have already detected PFAS or do so in the future. Chemours, DuPont, and another manufacturer announced their intent to settle earlier in the month, for $1.185 billion.

‘Comparing the numbers, it’s a start, but it doesn’t get us close to where we need to be, and it’s still going to leave a lot of the burden on communities,’ says Chris Moody, regulatory technical manager at the American Water Works Association. ‘When we’re talking about $3 billion a year in ongoing expenses, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be enough.’ 

In many towns and cities, identifying the source of the PFAS pollution is straightforward, but getting all the funds needed to fix the problem isn’t.

For example, PFAS contamination in Plainfield Township, Mich., also captured in the same early EPA survey as Warminster’s, was traced to a shoe company in nearby Rockford called Wolverine Worldwide, owner of brands like Hush Puppies, Merrell, and Saucony, according to allegations in a complaint filed by the state in 2018. The complaint says that in the 1960s, a Wolverine tannery in Rockford used Scotchgard (which is made with PFAS) to waterproof the leather for Hush Puppies shoes, and legally disposed of the waste in the ground on property owned by the company. For half a century, it allegedly seeped into the area’s groundwater. 

Rick Solle, director of public services in Plainfield, says Wolverine, which has since closed the tannery, paid for bottled water and home treatment systems, but only for private well owners closest to the site whose water was most affected, some with levels ‘in the thousands’ of ppt. To clean up the municipal system, Plainfield had to apply for a grant from the state. They used the funds to retrofit the water treatment plant with PFAS-filtering technology. Eventually, a settlement of a lawsuit between Wolverine and the state helped pay for the job of connecting many of the homes with contaminated private wells to the public system.

‘This is the fourth of four years of water extension projects, so not everybody’s hooked up yet,’ Solle says. ‘We’re looking at a thousand homes’ that have had to be connected in total. Meanwhile, some homeowners have installed costly in-house filtration systems, and others have continued to drink only bottled water.

When asked to comment, Wolverine Worldwide directed CR to a statement it issued in 2020 after reaching the agreement with Plainfield and the state of Michigan to remediate the disposal site and extend municipal water service to homes with contaminated wells. The statement says, in part, ‘we are committed to being part of comprehensive water quality solutions for our friends, families, and neighbors.’ The process of taking polluters to court is time-consuming. One of the plaintiffs of the massive firefighting foam case is the town of Warminster, Pa., which first filed a case against the PFAS manufacturers and foam companies in 2019. Hagey says that the town is trying to recoup the costs of treatment that were above the amount covered by military remediation and state grants.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in North Carolina is in the sixth year of its lawsuit against DuPont and its spun-off company Chemours, alleging that Chemours has dumped various PFAS into the Cape Fear River for over 40 years. The utility expects a trial in federal court sometime in 2024 or 2025.

In the meantime, the pollution continues, and much of the cleanup cost has already been passed on to customers, says Kenneth Waldroup, the utility’s executive director. So far, the Cape Fear utility has spent $43 million to address PFAS cleanup, and estimates it’ll need to spend an additional $3 to 5 million per year in perpetuity. This cost has translated to a rate increase of approximately $6 per customer per month, according to the utility.

‘Obviously, nobody likes to see their bills go up, and it’s especially frustrating to know that they’re paying to deal with an issue that was caused by somebody else,’ says Vaughn Hagerty, whose investigative reporting for the Wilmington Star-News in 2017 alerted the public and the water utility about the severity of the PFAS problem in the area. He is now the utility’s public information officer.

Thom Sueta, director of corporate communications for Chemours, tells CR that since the company entered into a consent agreement with North Carolina in 2019, it has taken a number of steps to treat contaminated groundwater near the company’s facilities and to reduce PFAS emissions into the air. Sueta says that Chemours is ‘committed to manufacturing these essential chemistries responsibly.’

How much individual water bills may go up because of the cost of PFAS cleanup will depend on several factors, like how much of an overhaul of current testing and treatment is needed, how many people are served by the water system to share the cost, and the outcomes of any related litigation or settlements. AWWA, the water utility trade group, estimates that the cost could range from $65 per year for households in big cities, to over $3,500 annually for households in very small towns.” …