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High concentrations of dangerous 'forever chemicals' found in Midwestern rivers, report shows

 The Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper’s sampling of Coldwater Creek in St. Louis, Missouri, detected more than 20 individual PFAS chemicals.
Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper
The Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper’s sampling of Coldwater Creek in St. Louis, Missouri, detected more than 20 individual PFAS chemicals.

A survey from Waterkeeper Alliance found chemicals known as PFAS were found in surface waters across the United States with particularly high concentrations found in some rivers in the Midwest.

The Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper wasn’t surprised to find dangerous PFAS chemicals in Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County, but the group was surprised to see how much there was.

“Out of all of the waterkeepers in the broader Midwest, we had the highest concentration of total PFAS,” said Charles Miller, the policy manager at Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper. “We had one of the higher concentrations in the country.”

Waterkeeper Alliance asked waterkeepers across the United States to test for PFAS chemicals. PFAS is the shortened term for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals” because their components break down very slowly over time. Many are now present in people, animals and food and are linked to certain cancers, lower immune response and reproductive effects. The report found that 83% of the waters tested had at least one of these chemicals.

“I do genuinely think that in the (Midwest) we're kind of behind the curve on regulating it. That's absolutely true,” Miller said. “We're also behind the curve on figuring out where it is.”

Because there are no federal regulations, it is currently up to the states to determine their own regulations for PFAS. With Coldwater Creek, the Environmental Protection Agency has offered help.

“The EPA has reached out to the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper to obtain information regarding sampling on the creek and will work with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources as part of their assessment of rivers and streams in the state,” said a spokesperson for EPA Region 7.

The EPA also developed health advisories for some PFAS chemicals, but those concerned about PFAS are looking forward to the federal drinking water regulation that the agency is supposed to propose by the end of the year.

“I'm optimistic that they're actually addressing it because they hadn't for a long time,” said Matt Simcik, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Minnesota who has studied PFAS for over 20 years.

Though more research is needed on the health effects of these chemicals, he said action should still be taken.

“Otherwise we're just gonna keep exposing ourselves to these chemicals and creating these giant uncontrolled experiments, where we're exposing people to chemicals that we have no idea what they do,” he said.

Tar Creek, a river that flows from Kansas to Oklahoma, is highly polluted. It is a superfund site where the EPA is working with the states and tribal nations to clean up the hard metals that linger from a history of mining in the area.

The tests also showed a high concentration of PFAS chemicals. Having lots of experience with the dangers of river pollution, this immediately raised alarm bells for Rebecca Jim, the Tar Creekkeeper and executive director of LEAD, a local environmental justice organization.

“It just doesn't catch a break,” she said.

She’s worried about the effects of these chemicals on children who play in the area who have already been exposed to lead and other metals. Tar Creek also flows into Neosho River, which feeds the Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, a major drinking water source.

“It just adds to the load of what many people are being exposed to,” she said.

Coldwater Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River, also has a history of pollution — in its case from radioactive waste storage during World War II. Miller said that history, along with a population that’s vulnerable to environmental injustice, made it a prime area to test.

“When a place is known as a place that is polluted, it starts to draw more interest from polluters paradoxically, because they can see that they can get away with it,” he said.

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member. Follow Eva on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Eva Tesfaye
Eva Tesfaye is a 2020 Kroc Fellow. She started in October 2020 and will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR.