The Upper Potomac Riverkeeper recently reported finding high levels of so-called forever chemicals that can cause health problems in Antietam Creek.

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.

Follow Hannah on Twitter: @hannah_himes

(7) comments

bosco

Did I miss it, or did the article not report on what the "high" levels found were? What is the federal standard standard and what was the levels found?

[ninja]

MD1756

bosco, for some time, the chemical companies have resisted efforts to regulate PFAS. TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) requires companies to report what health information they do have (and they haven't always been forthcoming) but doesn't generally require the companies to do the studies (at least in the past). More recently EPA has been looking at PFOAs and PFAS (see: https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-laws-and-regulations - on that page it says "PFAS chemical substances may be considered for prioritization in the future." which means studies and possible regulations). Because of lack of sufficient data, EPA has not set drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals (they have only issued an advisory see: https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/drinking-water-health-advisories-pfoa-and-pfos). The advisory set the health limit at 70 parts per billion (but it is not an enforceable standard). Industry doesn't really want to know the health impacts because they would then likely be regulated when now they can manufacture the chemicals and when sufficient health data is developed to show its harm many of them will say they aren't responsible because they complied with the laws that existed at the time of manufacturing. Here is an article from 2019 describing some of the history of the issues https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/11/pfas-toxic-forever-chemicals-hearing-3m-dupont-chemours

Note: It seems DuPont is now for regulating PFOS now that it spun of its manufacturing capability to Chemors, but when I worked at the EPA I don't know of any of the manufacturers who thought regulation was necessary (although I didn't work as much on regulation development as I did on compliance and enforcement of the regulations).

Hayduke2

Unsettling and something that should be monitored. Frightening that we, in general, take water for granted and don't realize what a precious resource it is. Hard not to realize that what we do on the land impacts the water.

MD1756

Just another example of humans' negative impact on the planet. These are man made chemicals so there's no convenient denials to be had here. Population growth, which leads to greater concentration of people just makes this type of issue worse than it might otherwise be. We are supposed to be the most intelligent life forms on the planet, but I think we need to wake up and get our act together.

matts853

We may never learn. As long as someone can profit from poisoning others, it will continue.

MD1756

Greed is certainly part of the issue, but in a case like this, those who manufacture chemicals say they have complied with the regulations that existed at the time without having to show there chemicals are not harmful before manufacturing the chemicals. All they have to do is provide any health information they do have (which is a disincentive to perform testing and studies). We need stricter regulations under TSCA so this type of problem (allowing harmful chemicals into commerce) doesn't happen in the future.

Dwasserba

'"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." OMG Be dirty. Stay dirty. Your body will thank you.

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