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Ohio and PFAS…. Where do we go from here?

Authors: Melanie Houston and Lara Kowalcyk 

There’s a lot of talk right now in the national news media about PFAS. 

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a family of nearly 5,000 chemicals used to make many common-place products, from food packaging to firefighting foams. They are often dubbed “forever chemicals” for their ability to linger in the environment.  

PFAS were first introduced into consumer products in the 1940s and, since that time, they have been entering into the environment through the emissions of polluting factories and consumer products. PFAS contamination is now widespread in the human body as well as lakes, rivers and even rainwater.

Thankfully, Governor Mike DeWine is paying attention to this issue in Ohio. Under his leadership, the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) released a PFAS Action Plan in December 2019. The PFAS Action Plan was a strong step in the right direction for getting a handle on the extent of Ohio’s PFAS problem in drinking water systems and determining steps for the protection of Ohio’s water resources.

Perhaps the most notable element of the PFAS action plan was the statewide sampling of approximately 1,550 public drinking water systems. The Ohio EPA finished its final testing of drinking water in December 2020. The results showed that 6%—or 106 out of 1,550— public water systems had some detectable level of PFAS; these levels were under the federal health advisory level of 70 Parts Per Trillion (PPT). Of those, Ohio EPA found two water systems with elevated PFAS levels above 70 PPT. In those cases, immediate steps were taken to identify alternatives to ensure safe drinking water. No traces of chemicals were found in the remaining 94% of systems.

It’s also worth noting that many scientists, experts, and organizations believe that the federal threshold of 70 PPT of PFAS in drinking water is too high. Other states have set their numbers much lower. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) announced in July 2020 that they will adopt rules creating limits of 8 PPT for PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8) and 16 PPT for PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, the key ingredient in Scotchgard). The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection formally established maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) of 14 PPT for PFOA and 13 PPT for PFOS in June 2020. The Environmental Working Group and Natural Resources Defense Council recommend total PFAS limits as low as zero or 1 PPT.   

While the PFAS Action Plan was a key step forward for Ohio, we still need a fuller picture of PFAS contamination in Ohio’s waterways. Ohio EPA’s next step should be testing Ohio’s surface waters for the presence of PFAS. In Ohio, 11,605 total miles of streams provide water for public drinking water systems. To address the PFAS problem at its source, we need to understand how PFAS chemicals have contaminated surface waters in Ohio. 

Additionally, Ohio should not wait to set limits on PFAS. Currently, there are no federal or Ohio drinking water regulations for any PFAS chemicals, other than a currently non-binding health advisory from the U.S. EPA. Ohio should join a growing number of states across the country taking action to protect their residents, especially children, from the known health impacts of PFAS chemicals. 

The Ohio “Safe Drinking Water Act” (HB 497)—sponsored by State Representatives Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) and Mary Lightbody (D-Westerville) in the last General Assembly—requires the Ohio EPA to set numeric limits on PFAS in drinking water and surface waters in Ohio. Setting clear numeric limits on PFAS will signal polluters that they must take responsibility for their contribution to the PFAS problem.

Ohio’s proposed “Safe Drinking Water Act” offers a common sense approach, ensuring drinking water experts at the Ohio EPA craft numeric limits on PFAS pollution to guarantee Ohioans receive protections from this harmful class of chemicals. The science on PFAS is certain. PFAS pose a significant public health risk to Ohioans and all Americans. By acting to set limits on PFAS pollution in drinking and surface water, we can protect more Ohioans from this harmful class of chemicals.