Searching for 'forever chemicals' in Oklahoma's drinking water
The family of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS is associated with a number of health risks. Ahead of proposed EPA regulations on some PFAS, experts and officials are working to make sure our drinking water is safe.
Before you take a sip of water from a public water supply, it runs a gauntlet of tests to make sure it’s safe for you to drink.
But in about half of America’s public water supplies lurks something regulators haven’t been testing for — a family of so-called “forever chemicals” or PFAS (pronounced Pea-fas). Dr. Kenneth Ede, a PFAS consultant and retired OSU professor, explains these manmade chemicals were introduced to the world 85 years ago.
“In 1938, Dr. Roy Plunkett, working for DuPont, freshly minted PhD student, first job out of college,” Ede said. “And he makes a mistake in the laboratory.”
Plunkett was aiming for a gas refrigerant, but he ended up with a powder that wouldn’t react with any chemicals he threw at it. That mistake created the world’s first PFAS, now known as Teflon. Like all the PFAS that have come after it, it contains a chemical bond between carbon and fluorine that’s extremely difficult to break.
That nigh-unbreakable bond makes PFAS super useful — they’re waterproof, they’re heat-resistant, and they don’t often react with other chemicals. Today, PFAS are used to make non-stick cookware, medical equipment, waterproof fabrics and a ton of personal products. Sunscreen, insect repellant, makeup, shaving cream and fabric softeners all frequently contain PFAS.
“So imagine at the end of the day and I hop into the shower and all that PFAS that I've put on my body now is going down the drain to the city sewer department,” Ede said.
Health problems with PFAS
Over the past three decades, researchers have realized that’s a problem. Studies have shown PFAS throw a wrench into our bodies’ chemistry — they’ve been linked with high cholesterol, liver disease, pregnancy complications and some cancers.
These health problems are mostly seen in people who live near facilities that manufacture PFAS or who use them in their jobs. Fire suppressant foams used heavily at military bases and airports often contain high concentrations of PFAS.
“You see these young firefighters — young men who do not smoke — with high incidence of testicular cancer due to, they believe, PFAS,” Ede said. “Prostate cancer, bladder cancer, all kinds of cancers and unfortunately, brain cancer also.”
Most people only encounter PFAS at much lower levels. But those encounters are frequent, as we slather PFAS-laced products on our bodies, don PFAS-coated clothing and consume PFAS-contaminated
“We know high concentrations pose some health risk,” said Danny Chance, the technical director of Accurate Environmental in Stillwater. “But as far as low concentrations, we're not really sure.”
While we wait to better understand their health effects, PFAS are building up in our environment — we can’t easily get rid of them because of that hardy chemical bond, and we keep making more and more.
New PFAS regulations are on the way
Chance is particularly well-positioned to know where PFAS are found in Oklahoma. Accurate Labs in Stillwater is the only lab in the state licensed to test for PFAS. Testing requires expensive equipment, and samples are prone to contamination because of PFAS’s ubiquity in our world.
“It’s just everywhere,” Chance said. “How much do we want to regulate? And how difficult and expensive is it going to be?”
We’re about to find out. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed regulatory limits for PFAS, which it plans to implement at the end of 2023.
Ahead of those new limits, the U.S. Geological Survey tested public water supplies and private wells across the country and detected PFAS in about half of them. In Oklahoma, they detected PFAS in one sample from an Oklahoma County public water supply and one sample from a private well in Pottawatomie County. You can view the locations of those samples, plus samples that didn’t have detectable PFAS, in the USGS’s interactive dashboard.
This isn’t the first time PFAS have been detected in an Oklahoma water supply. When the EPA had water systems check back in 2015, one of Bethany’s wells had multiple PFAS chemicals above levels believed to be safe.
“The well in that case was actually located at an old military facility, an airport area,” confirmed Shellie Chard, the Director of the Water Quality Division at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. “There was historic PFAS use at that site.”
But in this case, there was an easy fix — since Bethany has around two dozen wells, and only one had detectable PFAS.
“The other wells were not contaminated,” Chard said. “So Bethany had the option to simply turn off the pump, stop using that well, and then to be strategic about their other wells.”
Bracing for the future
That was the only Oklahoma water supply with too much PFAS by 2015’s recommendations and detection abilities. But then, our understanding and awareness of PFAS have changed. The EPA’s proposed limits are about twenty-five times lower than the existing guidelines.
That’s been a bit of a shake-up for public water supplies that tested at levels they believed to be safe in 2015. Norman Utilities Director Chris Mattingly said his city was among those.
“We were thinking, okay, we're good,” Mattingly said. “Well, then now the level of measurement has gone down to 2 parts per trillion. And so we were like, oh, so now we don't know if we're still at non-detect. So we have to redo it.”
Norman did fresh tests, and Mattingly says the city is still below the new level.
“So we're feeling a little sigh of relief,” he said.
Chance says that sigh is being echoed across the state.
“For most cities and towns that are treating the water, it's very low concentrations,” he said.”
But there’s still concern about wastewater. The EPA hasn’t set standards for that, and there’s concern it will be difficult and expensive to remove PFAS before sending treated wastewater back into the environment.
And even if wastewater systems can remove PFAS, they can’t really destroy them. You still end up with a ton of them stuck in a carbon filter or concentrated in a sludge. Depending on how the rules develop, wastewater systems will need to send those PFAS-contaminated byproducts to hazardous waste disposal facilities.
“There's maybe one or two of those in Oklahoma,” Mattingly said. “And future estimates right now is that we would overwhelm those hazardous waste sites.”
Researchers are looking for better solutions to break the bond that makes PFAS so difficult to dispose of.
But we have released a bunch of PFAS into the environment over the last 8 decades, we’re still adding more, and they’re not going away.
“I don't know how we're going to clean everything,” Chance said. “Honestly, it's going to be decades and decades of expensive work.”
In the meantime, experts said our best option is to stop making and buying so many things that contain them.
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