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Federal report focuses on toxicity of Decatur-area chemicals

Decatur Daily - 7/1/2018

July 01--A federal report released this month underlines the need for stricter limits on potentially toxic chemicals that are pervasive in the Decatur area, according to an environmental expert.

"It has large implications in setting a safe level in drinking water and most likely cleanup levels," said David Andrews, a chemist and environmental expert with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. "It gives additional credence to states that have proposed drinking water standards that are about an order of magnitude below what the EPA set in their health advisory in 2016."

The 852-page report on perfluoroalkyl compounds (PFCs, also referred to as PFAs) by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was published after pressure from Congress and environmental groups. Its existence was revealed through a public records request last month by national media.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 suggested non-mandatory limits in drinking water on the two most commonly studied PFCs, PFOA and PFOS, of 70 parts per trillion.

The two chemicals are no longer produced in the United States, but 3M Co. and its subsidiary Dyneon previously produced them in Decatur. Daikin produced PFOA.

High levels of the chemicals have been found in groundwater near Decatur'sMallard-Fox Creek Industrial Park and in much of Wheeler Reservoir. The only PFC evaluated in fish studies in Wheeler Reservoir is PFOS, and its presence in fish tissue has led to a recommended limit of one meal per month using fish taken from much of the lake. Contaminated leachate from the Morgan County Regional Landfill and a landfill in Hillsboro is sent to the Decatur Utilities Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is not designed to remove PFCs, so the chemicals are discharged into the river.

High PFC levels in drinking water at West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority, about 16 miles downstream of 3M and the wastewater treatment plant, triggered a no-drink order in 2016. The authority since has built a temporary filtration system that uses granulated activated carbon to remove PFOS and PFOA, but maintenance of the system is expensive.

"The replacement cost on the carbon would break us in four to five years," Don Sims, general manager of the authority, said Friday. "It costs about $800,000 every 18 months to replace the (carbon)."

The ATSDR report reviews numerous studies regarding the health effects of PFCs, dismissing some as lacking support but finding others persuasive. While its focus is on PFOA and PFOS, which have been most thoroughly researched, it also notes concerns with other PFCs that have replaced those chemicals in industrial applications.

"The International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that PFOA is possibly carcinogenic to humans, and EPA concluded that there was suggestive evidence of the carcinogenic potential of PFOA and PFOS in humans," the ATSDR report noted. "Increases in testicular and kidney cancer have been observed in highly exposed humans."

The report found that studies also consistently found an association between PFC exposure and various other health conditions:

--Pregnancy-induced hypertension/pre-eclampsia;

--Liver damage;

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--Increases in serum lipids, particularly total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol;

--Increased risk of thyroid disease;

--Decreased response to vaccines;

--Increased risk of asthma diagnosis;

--Decreased fertility;

--Small decreases in birth weight.

PFCs have been detected in breast milk and umbilical cord blood, according to the report.

"It's an incredible range of potential health impacts," Andrews said.

PFCs are used as a non-stick coating on cookware, carpets and even food wraps. They have received increased attention nationally because their use in firefighting foams has resulted in contamination of water near military bases and airports where the foams are used heavily in training.

Andrews said the ATSDR report indicates the maximum safe level of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water is about 10 parts per trillion, just over a tenth of the amount deemed safe by the EPA.

One significant emphasis of the ATSDR report is that PFC exposure comes not just from water.

"Perfluoroalkyls have been detected in all environmental media including air, surface water, groundwater (including drinking water), soil, and food. Human exposure may occur from all of these media," according to the report.

Andrews said this is significant, especially in an area like Decatur where multiple sources of exposure are likely.

"It opens up a question: Are people already being exposed to too much of this chemical through other sources, to the point where you really don't want any additional exposure through water?" Andrews said.

Andrews said the most effective way to remove PFCs, both on a large scale by utilities and by consumers, is through reverse-osmosis filtration. It removes not only PFOA and PFOS, but the numerous similar replacement chemicals. That's the direction West Morgan-East Lawrence is headed as it seeks a permanent solution to PFC contamination, but it has not arrived at a way to pay for it.

"Our first test results off of the pilot indicate the (reverse osmosis) is removing all PFCs from the water," Sims said. "We're running a second one right now, and the first test off this one also shows it removes all PFCs."

Sims said reverse osmosis requires a larger capital investment than carbon filtration, but he expects the long-term expense to be lower.

"Reverse osmosis is extremely effective at removing PFOA, PFOS, as well as the replacement chemicals and other contaminants," Andrews said. "It pretty much strips out everything, although it comes at a cost of a few hundred dollars for a homeowner. It's especially effective at home because you're typically installing it under your sink, so you're filtering a small quantity of water."

He said activated carbon filters, including inexpensive pitcher-type systems, also usually work for PFOA and PFOS. They are less effective for other PFCs, however, and reliability varies by brand.

The ATSDR report highlights research that Andrews says long ago should have been relied upon by the EPA in setting stricter limits on PFCs.

"It draws attention to the bigger question of how well we are regulating industrial chemicals, how well we are setting standards for safe drinking water," Andrews said. "We would like to see a federal effort that addresses the lack of new drinking water standards and tighter regulation of some of these chemicals that seem to irreversibly contaminate water. The outlook isn't great in Washington, so this has become much more of a localized issue with states and local communities providing the leadership and taking action."

The EPA held a summit May 22 in Washington, D.C., on PFCs. In a statement after the event, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the agency was evaluating the need for a specified maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water and that it was "beginning the necessary steps to propose designating PFOA and PFOS as 'hazardous substances' " under environmental laws.

Morgan County Regional Landfill and BFI's Morris Farms landfill in Hillsboro were required by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to evaluate methods for removing PFCs from leachate they send to the Decatur Utilities wastewater treatment plant, which is next to Ingalls Harbor. Both landfills reported in January that no cost-effective methods had been found.

-- eric@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2435. Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.

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(c)2018 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

Visit The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.) at www.decaturdaily.com

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