WSAZ Investigates | Flushing out Forever Chemicals

Experts say there’s a chance chemicals linked to serious health issues are flowing in the water you drink.
Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 6:44 PM EDT
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - When you turn on the tap, you expect to fill up your glass with clean drinking water.

However, experts say there’s a chance chemicals linked to serious health issues are flowing in the water you drink.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls them PFAS, or “Forever Chemicals.”

These are chemicals used in the industrial, food, and textile industries. They are also an ingredient in some firefighting foams, as well as food packaging, cleaning products and various other household items.

The chemicals have been detected in water systems across the country and here at home for years. However, now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says these chemicals can cause long-term health effects.

WSAZ’s Marlee Pinchok asked West Virginia’s state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health what families need to know about exposure.

“As the science on these types of chemicals has evolved, the consensus has become more clear overtime which has led to the changes in the health advisories as the science has progressed. It certainly is concerning, the link to adverse health outcomes. You mentioned cancer, there are liver and kidney issues, developmental/reproductive issues that can be associated. Our singular focus is that we control the source of these chemicals here within West Virginia and get them out of the water, so that we can alleviate those concerns,” Matthew Christiansen said.

In March, the EPA proposed a new rule that if implemented would require water systems to reduce the amount to the lowest level that testing can detect. However, state agencies in West Virginia say that effort is already underway.

“We’re doing everything we can in coordination with the DEP to get these out of the water,” Christiansen said.

He said the DHHR has been working with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for a few years to see where the chemicals are being detected in the water.

In 2020, the state contracted the U.S. Geological Survey to test the untreated water intakes for surface water and groundwater for public water systems in the state.

The DEP says detectable levels of PFAS were found at 37 of those sites, including sites in Cabell, Putnam and Mason counties.

However, the WVDEP and DHHR are awaiting results of additional testing of finished or treated water at those 37 sites across the state (including Cabell, Putnam and Mason counties) which will give a better idea of which specific areas are impacted most by the chemicals.

Gov. Jim Justice recently signed the “PFAS Protection Act” which will require the state to test finished or treated water at 100 additional sites.

In the meantime, Pinchok asked the DEP and DHHR what can be done now to stop the chemicals from getting into water and how to get them out of the water if detected.

“So, a lot of what the DEP is doing is trying to identify sources and trying to minimize those sources, because even though there is treatment technology at the water companies-- the best way to address this issue is a combination of both treatment and minimization before it gets to the plant,” Scott Mandirola said.

Pinchok stated the process seemed elaborate.

“It can be and it goes all the way from source control, making sure we’re not continuing to release these chemicals into the environment, to diversion of water sources from one potentially contaminated source to an alternate -- to installing specific mitigation technology in the water system in the water treatment facility to make sure that water, even if it is present in the raw water, doesn’t make it through to the finished water product,” Christiansen said.

Pinchok asked what the system would look like.

“It would look like extra filtration, an extra process to remove those contaminants. So, if it’s within that physical water treatment system it would either be activated charcoal or some other form of filtration system to keep that chemical out,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen goes on to say, “There’s a lot of unknown and it’s been something that’s been in the water system for a very long time. I do want to inform your audience and your viewers that this is cumulative exposure over time. So, it’s not a potential contaminant where you drink it once and you get sick. This is something that slowly builds over time and the risk builds over time and it has to be a significant amount to ingest. As we’re learning more about these chemicals, we’re learning and understanding that we have to get this level down to as little as possible and reduce the exposure.”