The June 10 report about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Antietam Creek was sent to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Forever chemicals, or PFAS, are “a group of man-made chemicals,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website. They are known as forever chemicals because they don’t break down and can accumulate in the body. They can be found in a number of everyday products, including cleaning products and paint.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for MDE wrote that the department is “committed to better understanding, communicating and managing human health risks posed by PFAS compounds and is undertaking several studies in 2020 to assess the occurrence of these compounds in surface water, oysters, and drinking water.”
MDE is also looking at the report and the riverkeeper group's "interpretation of the results with regard to human health risk.”
“MDE is seeking a follow-up meeting with UPR scientists who conducted the sampling project to obtain additional information on the study methodology, the results and the basis for UPR's conclusions,” according to the email.
In high levels, these chemicals can cause increased cholesterol and, in “more limited findings,” cancer, effects on the immune system and infant birth weights, and thyroid hormone disruption, according to the EPA.
“The big fear to me is not that it’s in the water and that we may be swimming or recreating in that water,” Brent Walls, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, said. “People go there to fish for food and you have fish with extremely high levels, we’re talking about, you know, a thousand times or more higher levels in the fish plasma ... to me that’s worrisome because it means that anyone who’s going to be eating those fish is going to be consuming large amounts of PFAS.”
Another worry is biosolids, sludge produced by the wastewater treatment process, is being used on crops and fields.
“And then food is grown from those agricultural fields,” Walls said. “There is research out there that shows that PFAS is retained in that sludge at high levels. It’s retained in the soils where it’s spread, just like a lot of your heavy metals, and it’s retained and absorbed through the plants and our food.”
To get samples, Walls said he had to be careful not to contaminate samples. For example, he couldn't use a permanent marker on a sample bottle before collecting the sample because it has PFAS in it.
Samples were taken from around the Hagerstown Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Smithsburg Wastewater Treatment Plant and the U.S. Geological Survey Antietam Creek.
Walls said that as far as they know there are no direct sources of PFAS in the Hagerstown Wastewater Treatment Plant area.
“What that tells me is that this PFAS is coming from everyday users, residents washing their clothes, you know, laundromats, washing dishes in the dishwasher, products that we wash and flush down the drain, all of these different things that we use on a day to day basis,” he said.
Walls said that currently the state does not have protocols for sampling biosolids for PFAS.
“We just want to be able to share this,” he said. “I know the state has an agenda to try and first attack … to understand the drinking water, how much PFAS is in our drinking water, our public drinking water and then they’re going to start looking at how much PFAS is in our wastewater treatment plants, you know, and then they might get around to how much PFAS is in our biosolids.”
Walls said PFAS needs to be on people’s minds and the state’s mind.
“They need to start assessing and developing a plan of action a lot faster,” he said, pointing to other states that have set PFAS levels in drinking water, wastewater treatment plants, and biosolids.
In the near future, Walls said he would like to see some signage along the creek that warns of the potential dangers.