PFOA: A Drinking Water Nightmare

Ohio has relatively safe drinking water. Ohio families in most communities should feel confident when drinking their tap water. Still, there are steps we can take to make our water even safer.

Toxic algae strikes Toledo every year and officials detect lead in water in communities across the state. Additionally, thousands of chemicals that can end up in our water remain relatively unknown and unregulated. Combined with companies not taking seriously their role to be good neighbors to the communities they operate within, there can be very negative consequences.

In the early 2000s, residents along the Ohio River in Southeast Ohio and West Virginia noticed their community experiencing specific health problems, and the common denominator was pollution in their public water system. It turned out that DuPont had known for decades that a chemical used in their factories, called perfluorooctanoic acid (“PFOA”), posed a serious risk to human health. Yet even after learning this fact, DuPont continued to use the chemical.

After filing massive class action lawsuits against DuPont, these communities reached settlements worth hundreds of millions of dollars to cover their health costs and improve their public water systems.

More than ten years later, scientists have established a comprehensive body of literature that explains the health risks of PFOA, which Attorneys General across the country have used to sue chemical companies for the harm this chemical has caused people and the environment. Ohio’s Attorney General, Mike DeWine, just filed a lawsuit against DuPont in February 2018.

Yet, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has only instituted voluntary actions to limit the manufacture and transmission of this substance. For example, it issued a “Health Advisory” that encourages, but does not require, public water systems to install certain filtration technology or provide an alternative source of drinking water if concentrations of PFOA rise above 0.07 micrograms per liter. For context, if you used an eye drop to place PFOA in about 34 kegs worth of beer, you would create a concentration of about 0.07 micrograms per liter within that massive amount of beer.

Although the OEC cannot answer why the U.S. EPA has failed to fully regulate PFOA, we can provide a new incentive for the federal agency to protect the public, especially Ohioans, from the harmful effects of substances like PFOA.

This week, the OEC filed a Petition for Rulemaking that explains the legal and scientific reasons why the U.S. EPA should immediately regulate PFOA under the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Similarly, we task the Agency with regulating not just PFOA, but all perfluoroalkyl substances (“PFASs”), because PFOA is not the only compound of its type that may pose a serious risk to human health.

So what are PFOA and PFASs?

PFASs are complicated carbon-linked molecules that include fluorine atoms. These molecules are particularly useful in industrial processes because they are very stable and solid at room temperature; however, this stable nature also causes these substances to persist in the environment for a very long time.

PFOA in particular is one of the many thousands of PFASs produced across the world. For instance, PFOA was used by DuPont when it created polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as TeflonTM. PFOA and other PFASs can occur in food packaging, firefighting foam, cleaning products, and various stain and water repellent fabrics. While PFOA is no longer produced in large quantities in the United States, many other PFASs are produced across the country, and factories in countries like China still produce PFOA.

While the stable nature of PFOA is useful when the substance is used as an  industrial chemical, it is terrible news for the environment. PFASs can be transported very long distances; scientists have detected PFOA in the arctic, seawater, and the atmosphere.

These chemicals also pose serious public health risks. PFOA can cause high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, kidney and testicular cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. What’s more, almost every citizen of the United States has at least some PFOA in their system.

Unfortunately, we don’t know as much about all of the other PFASs, but what scientists know so far is disheartening. We also don’t know enough about what these PFASs can do when combined together. Putting the health risks of specific PFASs aside, a number of scientists have emphasized their concern in allowing a potentially toxic mixture of chemicals to accumulate in our air, water, and land.  

So what can the U.S. EPA do to protect the public from PFOA and PFASs?

The OEC has asked, through its Petition for Rulemaking, for a set of regulations that would protect the public from PFOA and PFASs. While the U.S. EPA has spent decades gathering information about PFOA and has suggested numerous voluntary measures, its well past time that the Agency implement mandatory rules regulating PFOA and other PFASs.

Under the Clean Water Act, we ask the U.S. EPA to publish Water Quality Criteria that limits PFOA concentrations in waterways to 0.014 micrograms per liter, less than the EPA’s own Health Advisory and instead equivalent to the mandatory value developed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. If a waterway exceeds 0.014 micrograms per liter, then state EPAs would develop regulations to clean up the watershed. We also ask that the EPA institute Water Quality Criteria for PFASs as a mixture at 0.07 micrograms per liter.

Similarly, we ask the U.S. EPA to publish a Primary Drinking Water Regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act that would ensure public water systems must install treatment technology if PFOA concentrations rise above 0.014 micrograms per liter in the water they provide customers. If the concentrations of a mixture of PFASs reaches 0.07 micrograms per liter, public water systems would also need to install treatment technology.

Finally, we ask the U.S. EPA to immediately develop a Water Quality Standard for the Ohio River because the Ohio River has already experienced serious effects from PFASs,

Through these actions, the U.S. EPA can finally provide protection for Americans from PFOA and PFASs. It’s been almost twenty years since we learned about these dangerous substances. The time for inaction has passed.