By Treven Pyles
Posted on November 01st, 2019
Eight Alabama water systems contain cancer-causing chemicals, according to the EPA and the Alabama Department of Public Health. 3M Decatur acknowledges its role in releasing PFAS chemicals into the waterway, which supplies drinking water to millions of people.
In 2009, the EPA asked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to investigate if people who live near Decatur, Alabama, downstream of PFAS factories have been exposed to PFAS, as these facilities used to discharge PFAS into the air, water, and soil. In the following year, ATSDR conducted follow-up blood and urine testing and found above-average levels of PFAS in the residents' bodies.
Drinking water from 13 states accounted for 75 percent of the PFAS detections with Alabama having the fourth-highest concentration of the chemicals in its water supply behind California, New Jersey, and North Carolina, according to a new study led by researchers from the Harvard University.
The U.S. States in order of frequency of PFAS detection:
Out of all these states, Georgia has succeeded to pass the firefighting foam regulation bill (House Bill 458) with an almost unanimous vote. The fire code amendments prohibit any fire department or local and state entity to discharge or other use of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals starting January 2020, with the exception of an emergency situation or for training or testing purposes in facilities built to contain releases into the environment.
To protect residents who rely on private drinking water wells, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management started to investigate the occurrence of PFAS in public drinking water systems near certain facilities that manufactured, used, handled, or stored PFAS, focusing on the PFAS chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS.
PFAS contamination has been found in at least 172 sites in 40 states, and more than 1,500 drinking water systems serving 110 million people may be also contaminated, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that tracks pollution and supports tougher standards.
124 public water systems in Alabama analyzed 1,056 samples from 220 sites for six PFAS substances, including PFOA and PFOS. The following Alabama water systems have shown levels of PFOS and PFOA above the 70 ppt EPA chronic exposure threshold:
The north Alabama contamination has been also linked to the 3M plant on the Tennessee River. Not only was 3M pinpointed as a source of PFAS contamination by the Harvard study due to its use of the chemicals in the manufacture of water- and stain-resistant products, but the company has also been named a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed by the non-profit environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper.
3M conducted a series of studies themselves, as early as the 60s. Apart from liver damage in animals, one of the studies on PFAS levels showed the compound bound to the blood's plasma proteins. They found that the chemicals caused birth defects on rats and informed DuPont, who have further reviewed the births of their employees and found two out of seven births defects. By the 90s they were aware of the toxicity of these chemicals causing testicular, pancreatic and kidney tumor in lab animals but failed to inform the EPA.
In Decatur, the "River City" located in Northern Alabama, PFAS chemicals have been manufactured and used for many years in a variety of different capacities. For example, 3M used the chemicals to produce Scotchgard, a stain and durable water repellent applied to fabric, furniture, and carpets to protect them from stains, which was used by other companies in the city. The company voluntarily phased out the production of PFAS in 2002.
After detecting high levels of PFAS chemicals in the drinking water, the EPA released a new health advisory for West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority (WMEL) customers in March 2016. Elevated levels of PFAS detected at 110 ppt in WMEL drinking water, greater than the EPA Lifetime Health Advisory for the total amount of PFAS. As a short-term solution, the water provider warned the county's customers not to drink tap water and immediately installed a $4 million carbon filtration system to filter out those chemicals.
The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority filed a federal lawsuit against 3M, alleging that the company discharged the perfluorinated chemicals illegally into the Tennessee River.
At the end of April 2019, 3M and the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority announced that they have settled the lawsuit between them. 3M agreed to pay $35 million to fund a new filtration system to compensate for the Tennessee River contamination. The settlement only involves the water authority and didn't resolve other claims against the company.