Rome, Ga. — Intake pumps that once brought 6 million gallons of water a day from the Ostanaula River now sit mostly dormant in this northwest Georgia town.
Local officials claim that years of pollution miles upstream have sent toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, into Rome’s water supply, potentially dangerous to the city’s roughly 37,000 residents. A water source switch and additional treatment from Oostanaula reduced traces of the chemical running through residents’ taps, but they did not eliminate PFAS from the community’s water supply.
Test results that found contamination in Rome have echoed in communities across the country as researchers and regulators grapple with concerns about the effects of ingesting the ubiquitous chemicals. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is accelerating the debate. In June, the EPA issued new advice on PFAS in drinking water that regulators consider safe for four chemicals in the family, including the two most common, PFOA and PFOS.
EPA health advisories are not legally enforceable. But the agency is expected to propose new limits on PFAS in public water systems this year. If those drinking water regulations reflect the EPA’s latest recommendations, water system operators nationwide will have to work to address the presence of those chemicals.
“It’s a pretty important message,” said Dr. Philippe Grandjean, a PFAS expert and adjunct environmental health professor at the Harvard TH 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 than 2,800 sites in the United States that contain PFAS contamination. Public records show the chemicals have turned up in water samples collected from home water wells, churches, schools, military bases, nursing homes and municipal water supplies in cities as small as Rome and cities as large as Chicago.
According to research, they are present in the blood of almost every American. And some PFAS compounds bioaccumulate — meaning chemical concentrations are not easily cleared from the body and increase over time as people ingest trace amounts every day.
In July, a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that PFAS testing should be offered to people who may have been exposed to high levels through their jobs or who 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 levels and to have appropriate health care follow-up.” He said doing so was “very important and, in my mind, necessary.”
Both the EPA advisory and the National Academies report follow steady grassroots efforts to curb PFAS chemicals, which have been used in consumer products for decades. Since their discovery in the 1940s, the compounds — known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down quickly — have been widely applied to household and industrial products, including carpets, waterproof fabrics and nonstick cookware.
The presence of PFAS in firefighting foam, food packaging and even dental floss is 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 publicity and public awareness about PFAS,” said Alyssa Cordner, a chemist and professor of environmental sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
In their report, researchers from the National Academies said they found links between exposure to PFAS and four health conditions: reduced immunity, high cholesterol, decreased growth in infants and fetuses, and increased risk of kidney cancer. The report found a possible link between the chemical and breast cancer, liver enzyme changes, risk of testicular cancer and thyroid disease.
And EPA officials said the agency’s latest recommendations are based on new science and account for indications “that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water near zero.”
However, most states do not regulate PFAS.
That makes the EPA advisory important, said Jamie DeWitt, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University. “The message from the EPA is that if these PFASs are detected in drinking water, they pose a health risk,” he said.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, pushed back against the recommendations and recently asked a federal court to vacate them, saying the agency’s process was “scientifically flawed and methodologically inappropriate” and “set impossibly low standards for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.” water.” In a June statement, the council said PFAS has important uses, including in renewable energy efforts and medical supplies.
One of the producers of PFAS, 3M, said in a statement that the company “acts responsibly with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.”
Development of compounds began with early hits on Teflon and later Scotchguard. Now there are 12,000 of them, but only 150 are being studied by scientists and government agencies, DeWitt said.
US manufacturers have voluntarily phased out PFOS and PFOA, the two most widely produced, but they are still found in drinking water. The city of Rome is among 10 communities in north Georgia where PFOS or PFOA have been found in drinking water supplies at higher levels than EPA advisors have declared safe, the state’s environmental regulatory agency said.
Six years ago, Rome officials were forced to switch the city’s water supply from the Ostanaula to the nearby Etowa River, a brown tributary that joins the Ostanaula near a downtown bridge. Years of chemical contamination in Ostanaul that Rome officials say has made the water potentially dangerous dozens of miles upstream in Dalton. They said that in Dalton, the center of US carpet production, industrial waste containing PFAS entered the Conasauga River, which flows into Ostanaula.
Rome officials plan to build a $100 million reverse-osmosis filtering system to remove chemicals from the city’s water supply. Ratepayers will foot the bill, though a lawsuit filed by the city against carpet manufacturers and their chemical suppliers aims to recoup those costs. A separate lawsuit filed by a Rome resident and ratepayer makes similar allegations against upstream companies. Defendants in the two Rome-based cases have denied the allegations.
EPA announced $1 billion in grant funding to help states address PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water But changes to public water systems nationwide will likely quickly exceed that allocation.
Downstream from Rome, officials in the Alabama cities of Center and Gadsden have reported high levels of PFAS in the Coosa River and filed lawsuits against carpet manufacturers. The Gadsden case is expected to go to trial in October.
The chemicals have sparked a flurry of lawsuits over the past two decades. A Bloomberg Law analysis found that between July 2005 and March 2022, more than 6,400 PFAS-related lawsuits were filed in federal court.
Significant payouts have followed. DuPont and Chemours, which have manufactured PFAS products for decades, settled more than 3,500 lawsuits in 2017 for more than $670 million. Both companies have denied wrongdoing. And 3M settled a lawsuit from the state of Minnesota for $850 million. The same company settled a case in the Decatur, Alabama area for $98 million.
EPA should now cast a wider net to consider a wider variety of chemicals, Cordner said. “The persistence of PFAS means we will be dealing with it for a long time,” he said. “Because of their sheer quantity, we have to treat PFAS as a category. We can’t go chemical by chemical.”
EPA spokesman Tim Carroll told KHN in an email that the agency is working to divide the large class of PFAS into smaller classes based on similarities such as chemical composition, physical and chemical properties, and toxicological properties. The work, he said, will “accelerate regulations, enforcement activities, and the implementation of tools and technologies needed to remove PFAS from air, land and water.”
Meanwhile, some companies and the military have moved to stop using the chemical.
The Green Science Policy Institute, an environmental advocacy group, has compiled a list of PFAS-free products, including rain gear and clothing, shoes, baby products, cosmetics and dental floss.
Two years ago, Home Depot and Lowe’s said they would not sell carpets or rugs with PFAS in them. This year, textile manufacturer Milliken said it would remove all PFAS from its facilities by the end of 2022.
A handful of flooring companies followed suit. Dalton-based Shaw Industries, a defendant in Rome’s lawsuits, said it has stopped using PFAS in soil and stain treatments for residential and commercial carpet products.
The Cosa River Basin Initiative, a Rome-based environmental advocacy organization, is closely monitoring the PFAS issue. Its executive director, Jesse Damonbrunn-Chapman, said the EPA moved “at lightning speed” on PFAS compared to other agencies’ actions.
But until the final regulations are passed and the cleanup is widespread, he said, “we the people will be the guinea pigs for PFAS-related health problems.”
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