‘Forever Chemicals’ Have Contaminated California’s Drinking Water

October 22, 2019 Updated: October 22, 2019

A recent study determined that 86 water systems serving 9 million Californians have tested positive for toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other critical illnesses.

In state-conducted tests of over 600 wells, almost 300 drinking wells and water sources contained traces of PFAS chemicals commonly used in household products like food packaging, Scotchguard and Teflon cookware.

The analysis found contaminated pockets where the chemicals have bled into the public water supply, polluting drinking water sources ranging from complex systems that serve large cities to single wells that serve small very communities.

While groups of polluted wells were found in Los Angeles county, the city of Los Angeles did not find evidence of these chemicals in the water. Contaminated wells were also discovered in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

While PFAS chemicals are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “emerging contaminant,” they have not established a national federal standard for limiting the levels in drinking water.

PFAS, an acronym that encompasses per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, is also used in firefighting foam, a substance present in the drinking water of 90 different Army installations, including the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, California.

In a statement released last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein called for “the state and the federal government, and in particular the Defense Department, [to] step up and address this problem.”

Feinstein said the use of these chemicals should be put to an end and mentioned that the Senate and House are currently discussing the terms of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“We need to ensure the final bill bans the use of these dangerous chemicals and fully funds the cleanup of contaminated water sources,” she said.

The Department of Defense is currently exploring alternative options to firefighting foam, a substance which is also used at commercial airports.

PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they remain in the environment permanently.

As of January, a new state law will make it mandatory for utilities to notify customers if any level of PFAS are discovered in their water. In addition, water systems will be forced to shut down any wells that test over the federal health advisory limit. In the past, those steps in protocol have been optional.

So far this year, the city of Anaheim has shut down three drinking water wells in response to discovering elevated chemical levels.

In Orange County, PFAS chemicals were found in ten water systems and four wells with elevated levels were shut down.

Jason Dadakis, executive director of water quality for the Orange County Water District, determined that the chemicals were emanating from wastewater treatment plants in San Bernardino and Riverside, according to the LA Times.

“A conventional sewage treatment plant typically relies on a biological process to break down organic matter,” Dadakis told The Epoch Times. “It just turns out that the PFAS compounds — because of their inherent chemistry — are generally resistant to that kind of biological degradation.”

In conventional facilities, compounds like PFAS generally pass through the system untreated, Dadakis said. And even though “certain advancements and enhancements” can be made to sewage treatment plants to aid in removing these types of chemicals, they are relatively uncommon.

Since last March, the State Water Resources Control Board has been conducting a phased PFAS investigation to determine the source from which these chemical compounds are emanating, according to Dadakis.

“We hear they’re also going to begin an assessment of sewage treatment plants statewide to better understand how they may be contributing to PFAS getting into the environment,” Dadakis said.

The current goal is to establish how these harmful compounds are being discharged into the plants.

“[Is it] a particular industry that you can potentially control through permitting and regulation, or is it more widespread and sort of diffuse?” Dadakis explained. “Is it coming from households and, more generally, throughout a sewage collection system? In that case, it would be more challenging to control it [and] your other option is to essentially upgrade or enhance the plants to remove them. I think the state and the sanitation agencies are starting to try to figure out which is the better approach.”

In terms of the water’s direct threat to public health, our knowledge about the chemicals’ impact is still developing.

“New information appears to be coming out almost every month,” Dadakis added. “Our health knowledge on it is evolving rather quickly. So that’s what’s informing some of the state’s advisories that have come out in terms of drinking water standards. Utilities are taking those very, very seriously and making sure their systems are in compliance.”

While the current tests are focused on finding PFAS in drinking water, the widespread use of this compound in consumer products for decades has been “well-documented by national health monitoring data.”

“Drinking water is just one of those exposures and it’s one we can potentially control,” Dadakis said. “People have the potential to be exposed to [these compounds] in a variety of ways.”

Feinstein Statement on PFAS Contamination in California Drinking Water