Jun 04, 2023

As EPA readies to limit ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water, Kan. has done little testing

Posted Jun 04, 2023 8:00 PM

PFAS have been linked to a number of health problems

Kansas Reflector

Most of the sample results were normal. But one stood out. 

Drinking water in rural Barber County contained levels of perfluorooctanoic acid — or PFOA — at more than 30 times a limit under consideration by the Environmental Protection Agency.

It was the only substance the lab detected when Barber County Rural Water District #2 had its water tested for more than 20 per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS. This class of chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals,” numbers in the thousands.

Despite the striking result, the water district isn’t in violation of any regulations.

Federal and state regulators are just gearing up to impose limits on PFOA and other PFAS. The district’s manager, Bill Duvall, said the district took advantage of free testing offered by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“We’re trying to establish a baseline, is what we’re after,” Duvall said in an interview. 

Duvall’s water district is one of few Kansas systems that have recent sampling results for PFOA and other PFAS.

PFAS have been used in consumer products, such as nonstick pans and paint, for decades. But a growing body of research indicates the chemicals can raise the risk of cancers, obesity and infertility. 

The EPA has proposed a limit in drinking water of four parts per trillion — or nanograms per liter — for two PFAS: PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS. It has also proposed limits to four more combinations of PFAS chemicals.

The agency is taking comments on the proposed limits until Tuesday.

While the EPA is working to impose restrictions on PFAS in drinking water, there’s very little data about what Kansas water districts might be contaminated. While some states have required their utilities to test for PFAS, Kansas is lagging

“It’s very mixed across the country,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group who has studied PFAS for more than 10 years. 

But Andrews noted the EPA is requiring water systems that serve more than 2,000 people to sample starting this summer. Over the next year-plus, Andrews said “much more comprehensive information” will become available. 

The EPA said in an email that testing will help determine “the frequency and magnitude at which these chemicals are found in the nation’s drinking water systems.” It’s part of the agency’s PFAS roadmap to “understand where PFAS is occurring in drinking water and to take steps to protect human health and the environment.”

That testing “could inform how communities must respond to PFAS contamination in drinking water” if EPA’s proposed limits go into effect, the agency said. 

Barber County Rural Water District #2 had its water sampled voluntarily along with other cities and water districts from Hays and Colby to Arkansas City. 

Sampling results obtained from KDHE through a Kansas Open Records Act request show few of the water systems had detectable levels of PFAS. But the ones sampled recently represent about 65 of the state’s 1,000 public water systems.

A spokesman for KDHE said in an email Friday that it may not be able to respond to questions because some staff members were out of the office.

Great Bend’s water barely exceeded the proposed 4 parts-per-trillion limit for PFOA and PFOS. It reported high levels of perfluorohexane sulfonic acid, or PFHxS, which EPA proposes to regulate according to a “hazard index” in combination with other PFAS compounds. 

The water utility’s manager did not immediately respond to a voicemail requesting comment.

Larger water systems, including those in Johnson County, Topeka and Wichita, were required to test their water for PFAS between eight and 10 years ago. But those results tell little about the state of contamination. 

Utilities weren’t required to report the results unless they exceeded 20 parts per trillion. That’s five times greater than the limits proposed by EPA, meaning even samples that could have unsafe levels of PFAS don’t show up in the data housed on the EPA website.

“This is a point that’s really infuriating,” Andrews said. 

Andrews said the labs that performed the testing didn’t necessarily share it with the EPA or water utilities. 

“So as far as I know, that information is not accessible through any way,” he said. 

An EPA spokesman said in an email that detections below 20 parts per trillion in that round of monitoring are only “estimated values” and not reported.