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Advocates say new PFAS guidelines are step in the right direction, but Ohio is still behind

Phillipsburg water tower. In April 2021, Ohio EPA testing found groundwater in the village had PFOS levels (6.53 ppt) that were more than three hundred times above the U.S. EPA's new drinking water threshold (0.02 ppt).
Chris Welter
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WYSO
Phillipsburg water tower. In April 2021, Ohio EPA testing found groundwater in the village had PFOS levels (6.53 ppt) that were more than three hundred times above the U.S. EPA's new drinking water threshold (0.02 ppt).

The United States Environmental Protection Agency released new Drinking Water Health Advisories for some PFAS chemicals last week. The agency also announced $1 billion in grant funding through President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help communities that are "on the frontlines of PFAS contamination."

PFAS, or so-called “forever chemicals,” are man-made. They are also extremely difficult to break down so they can end up sticking around for a long time in the water, in the soil and in the human body. In total, close to 5,000 different types of PFAS are known to exist.

PFAS are used in a range of things—like firefighting foam that smothers high-heat fuel fires, anti-stick pots and pans, and as a water-proofing agent for some furniture.

The chemicals have been linked to cancer and developmental problems in infants and children.

Locally, PFAS were discovered in more than a dozen public water systems during a recent testing of Ohio Public Water Systems by the Ohio EPA.

A&R Mobile Home Park in Miami County.
A&R Mobile Home Park in Miami County. In May 2021, Ohio EPA testing found groundwater in the park had PFOS levels (9.75 ppt) that were more than four hundred and fifty times above the US EPA's new drinking water threshold (0.02 ppt).
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Chris Welter
A&R Mobile Home Park in Miami County. In May 2021, Ohio EPA testing found groundwater in the park had PFOS levels (9.75 ppt) that were more than four hundred and fifty times above the US EPA's new drinking water threshold (0.02 ppt).

The new federal advisory sets the threshold for two varieties of the chemical, PFOA and PFOS, to no more than 0.02 parts per trillion in drinking water. Levels higher than 0.02 ppt could be unsafe to drink, according to the U.S. EPA.

The new advisory replaces the 2016 EPA guidelines that had set the PFOA and PFOS limit at 70 parts per trillion.

Melanie Houston, Interim Water Policy Director with advocacy group The Ohio Environmental Council, said the federal advisory is a step in the right direction.

"It demonstrates that even low levels of PFAS, because you're exposed to it in so many different routes of your life as an Ohioan, really can add up and have a lifetime impact," she said.

But the federal advisory is just that, an advisory.

In a statement to WYSO, an Ohio EPA spokesperson said that the federal advisories aren’t enforceable drinking water standards. In fact, no national drinking water standards for PFAS compounds currently exist.

The U.S. EPA is expected to create new, enforceable PFAS regulations next year and the Ohio EPA said the agency will adopt those regulations when they come.

But two Democratic lawmakers, Mary Lightbody and Allison Russo, have proposed House Bill 365, which would force the Ohio EPA to adopt standards that are more in line with the new advisories before the new, enforceable regulations come out in 2023.

“I happen to be the state lead for the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators and have been looking at what other states are doing relative to PFAS chemicals,” Lightbody said. “Ohio is way behind what some other states are doing far more proactively.”

California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont have all taken state-level PFAS action.

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.