Read the full article by Hawes Spencer (The Daily Progress)

“A recent debate over installing synthetic turf on the front yard of a Rugby Road fraternity house highlighted an issue that worries environmental health advocate Kate Mallek: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, so-called forever chemicals.

Called that because they don’t break down in nature, these toxic substances made headlines in Charlottesville last month when their presence shut down a local water treatment plant, and Mallek said she fears that unbridled acceptance of synthetic turf could mean more pollutants in local bodies of water and in local bodies of humans.

‘They stay, and they build up in bodies, they build up in wildlife, and they build up in soil,’ Mallek told the Daily Progress. ‘We cannot afford to have our water polluted with with stuff like this.’

Mallek said the trouble with artificial turf stems from the extrusion process for making the fake blades of grass when molten polymers are forced through a grate.

‘They’re very hot plastic,’ said Mallek. ‘So to push them through the machine they have to use a lubricant, and that lubricant contains PFAS.’

PFAS are a class of manmade chemicals that make products water- and stain-resistant. They notably appeared in such 20th-century staples as firefighting foam, Teflon and — until its 2003 reformulation — Scotchguard fabric protector. But emerging research indicates there can be a downside to this chemistry.

One year ago, the National Academies of Sciences released a report finding evidence that PFAS exposure may lead to kidney cancer, abnormally high cholesterol, decreased antibody response, as well as infant and fetal growth problems.

‘PFAS is a forever chemical, and it causes all sorts of very serious health complications for people who are exposed to it long term,’ said Mallek. ‘We have to take drinking water seriously.’

A little bit of PFAS does seem dangerous, according to the National Academies of Sciences report. At what might seem to be extremely low concentrations — two parts per billion in a person’s blood — the report recommends patient screening for various conditions.

‘They don’t break down,’ said Mallek. ‘They are going to be here long after you and I are gone.’

PFAS was the subject of a 2019 film called ‘Dark Waters’ starring Mark Ruffalo as the real-life lawyer who waged a successful class-action lawsuit against chemical giant DuPont for polluting the groundwater around Parkersburg, West Virginia.

But it’s not just Hollywood sounding alarms about what’s in the water. In late 2021, President Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill which included $10 billion to combat PFAS exposure. More recently, the Environmental Protection Agency has been placing more attention on these chemicals. In March, the EPA announced plans to enact legal maximums for drinking water, planned regulations that would trigger alerts and order remediation when drinking water hits a certain threshold.

‘There is no dose below which either chemical is considered safe,’ according to the EPA executive summary of its proposed rules for the two compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS.

‘It’s not something we want in the environment in any measure even a tiny little bit,’ said Mallek.

While the EPA aims at zero PFAS, the agency will let utilities send water to consumers with up to four parts per trillion.

That regulation, slated to take effect by the end of the year, has already rocked the Charlottesville and Albemarle County water supply. In a July 8 statement, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority announced that it was voluntarily taking one of its three urban water facilities, the North Rivanna Water Treatment Plant, out of service.

‘We are making this infrastructure adjustment as a precaution,’ the authority wrote, as it described as ‘very conservative’ the EPA’s planned threshold. ‘For context,’ reads the next sentence in the announcement, ‘one part per trillion is comparable to one second in 32,000 years.’

And yet the amounts of the two compounds in the local water supply came in well above the EPA’s targets: PFOS was detected at North Rivanna at 6.5 parts per trillion, and PFOA was detected there at 25 parts per trillion. In other words, one compound was found 63% above the standard and the other at 625% of the standard.

Mallek said she bristles at the authority’s comparison between toxins in water to the notion of time in seconds and years.

‘It is a false and misleading equivalence,’ said Mallek.

She contended that the four parts per trillion is not conservative.

‘It is literally the lowest concentration that laboratories can currently reliably measure,’ said Mallek. ‘Drinking water utilities cannot comply with lower limits at this time because they cannot test below it to demonstrate compliance.’

The authority’s executive director, Bill Mawyer, took responsibility for the verbiage.

‘I wrote the press release, and I called it conservative,’ Mawyer told The Daily Progress.

Mawyer said that most metals tested in water are measured in parts per million, which is one thousand times larger than parts per billion and one million times bigger than a trillion. And he said he learned from articles in an industry magazine called Water World that the previous federal guideline allowed 70 parts per trillion and that several states, including routinely rigorous California, allow greater concentrations.

‘That seems to be typical sentiment from water authorities across the country, and that’s why I chose the word “conservative,”’Mawyer said.

Mallek’s mother has some practical experience with turf. Ann Mallek represents the White Hall District on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and got wind in late 2018 of truckloads of worn-out artificial turf heading to a western Albemarle property. The elder Mallek notified county officials and the state Department of Environmental Quality to what looked like an illegal dump of tons of turf.

Resident Travis Bailey conceded that he allowed a friend to place the turf, which came from a University of Virginia intramural athletic facility, on some family property. He alleged it was temporary.

‘Someone said something to him, so I didn’t let him bring any more,’ said Bailey. ‘What he did with the stuff I don’t know.’

The Daily Progress’ efforts to reach that friend were unsuccessful, and the DEQ closed its file on the matter in early 2019.

‘All of the turf material has been removed from the property, and the County conducted a closure inspection,’ wrote Jed Pascarella, then the DEQ program planner. ‘All looked fine.’

For its part, UVa now ensures that contractors removing its turf use only proper landfills, according to university spokesman Brian Coy.

‘I can’t speak to the policies or practices from back then,’ Coy wrote in an email to The Daily Progress, ‘but today the University does have measures in place to verify that disposal sites used by our contractors are valid and approved for the material in question.’

That episode outraged environmental scientist Pete Myers, who lives in Albemarle County. While nobody professes knowledge of how the PFAS got into the Rivanna water treatment plant, Myers has some theories.

‘To my knowledge there are no PFAS manufacturing facilities in the area,’ said Myers.

Myers said that leaves as suspects polluted rainwater, leachate from turf, sewage sludge applied to agricultural fields and firefighting foam.

The Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, which has firefighting foam, happens to be located in the vicinity of the troubled water plant. However, airport COO Jason Burch, recently tapped to take the helm as CEO, said that as a former CHO firefighter he has long known about PFAS and ensures that no foam hits the ground during training.

‘The last I saw foam was when I was using it on airplane that had wrecked on the runway, circa 2005,’ said Burch.

If PFAS is getting into the local water supply, it may come from something other than turf, according to the Synthetic Turf Council, an industry trade group.

Melanie Taylor, the group’s president and CEO, shared a story from Wilton, Connecticut. There, preliminary testing found PFAS near a turf field. Subsequent testing, however, isolated the field’s runoff and found no PFAS.

‘People are often testing water that entered a field already as stormwater runoff or water from the fields that mingles with stormwater runoff,’ Taylor told The Daily Progress in an email.

‘The water is picking up lots of pollutants from lots of places,’ she wrote. ‘We are confident in the safety of synthetic turf systems.’

As for the fraternity that had to argue for its little patch of turf along Rugby Road, it eventually won that permission in June. In May, however, a member of the city’s Board of Architectural Review, Carl Schwarz, who ultimately voted in the minority opposing Beta Theta Pi’s bid for turf, suggested stone pavers.

‘If a college student throws up on it, it’s not going to be there forever,’ Schwarz said.”