A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory warning of harmful industrial pollutants in 59 water systems nationwide has raised concerns in Alabama, where eight of the named water systems are located.
The EPA advisory focuses on the presence of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctyl sulfonate (PFOS), man-made chemical compounds that are used in the manufacture of non-stick, stain-resistant, and water-proofing coatings on fabric, cookware, firefighting foam, and a variety of other consumer products.
Exposure to the chemicals over time, even in trace amounts, could promote serious health problems, the EPA warns. Some of the adverse health effects linked to PFOA and PFOS include “developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes),” the EPA warned.
According to the agency, pregnant women, unborn children, breast-fed children, and babies whose formula is made with tap water are among the people most at risk from exposure.
The eight Alabama water systems affected by the advisory are:
- West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority
- Gadsden Water Works & Sewer Board
- Centre Sewer Board
- V.A.W. (Vinemont Anon West Point) Water Systems, Inc.
- West Lawrence Water Co-op
- Northeast Alabama Water District (in Fort Payne)
- Southside Water Works and Sewer Board (in Gadsden)
- The Utilities Board of Rainbow City
No enforceable government regulations currently exist, so the government is unable to take action against the suspected culprits, and no federal funds are available to help utilities deal with the high levels of industrial pollutants entering their water supplies.
That means companies like 3M, which operates a major manufacturing plant on the Tennessee River in Decatur, Ala., once the leading maker of PFOS in the world and one of many large-scale makers of PFOA, may turn a blind eye to the mounting concerns.
3M’s Decatur plant phased the use of both chemicals out of its operations in 2002, but the chemicals are particularly resistant to breaking down in the environment. That means the chemicals accumulate, linger, and recycle through the environment.
The EPA says that PFOA and PFOS are so prevalent and resistant to breakdown that nearly every American tested has the chemical in his or her blood.
Some of the Alabama water systems may solve the problem relatively quickly and affordably by switching to another well. But for others, such as the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority, a fix comes in the form of a $30-$50 million reverse osmosis filtration system with $1 million/year operating costs.
Lack of government funding to tackle the pollution means the costs will be passed on to customers.
The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority last year filed a class-action federal lawsuit against 3M and affiliated companies alleging trespass, negligence, and public nuisance for contaminating the water supply. But 3M has steadfastly denied its involvement, so any potential relief for the water utilities and their customers may come after years of litigation.
Tennessee Riverkeeper, a non-profit environmental group, also filed a notice of intent to sue 3M and other manufacturers over PFOA and PFOS concentrations in the river. The group alleges that runoff from landfills where the pollutants are buried is entering the river and the groundwater.