Cities to curb PFAS in drinking water

NOW: Cities to curb PFAS in drinking water

SOUTH BEND, Ind.-- American cities now have five years to test their water for PFAS, or "forever chemicals" and implement technology to mitigate these toxic substances to meet new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.

South Bend already tests its water for PFAS, but the State of Indiana doesn't have its own drinking water standard. Instead, it follows the federal standard, and these new regulations, tackling PFAS, are a first of their kind from the EPA.

“This is one of the most significant things that has happened on PFAS in quite some time. This is an action that will make sure hundreds of millions of Americans have access to drinking water that’s free of these toxic chemicals,” said Rebecca Meuninck, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Regional Center of the National Wildlife Federation.

PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, a category of thousands of compounds also called “forever chemicals.” 

“PFAS are a really broad class of chemicals that are very commonly used in our everyday lives, everything from our Teflon pans to our rain gear that’s water resistant, to the firefighting foam to put out petroleum fires,” Meuninck said. “They’re really useful in the marketplace, right, they have all these properties in terms of non-stick, water resistant, grease resistant, fire resistant, etc. However, what we know about PFAS is they also have a lot of really nasty characteristics in terms of the risks they hold for human health and wildlife health as well.”

The contamination in city drinking water largely comes from the manufacturing side, she explained.

“The way that we’re often exposed through our drinking water is either through the production of these products that contain PFAS chemicals, or the disposal of them,” she said.

The new EPA regulations address six PFAS chemicals, the six most known. States now have until 2027 to start and complete PFAS testing in the local water supply, and then until 2029 to install technology to mitigate any high levels of PFAS. 

$1 billion in federal funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law will assist states in these efforts. The EPA is setting an enforceable maximum contaminant level for PFAS at four parts per trillion or 10 parts per trillion, depending on the chemical.

But what does this mean for American cities like South Bend?

ABC57 spoke with Eric Horvath, Public Works Director for the City of South Bend.

“I think this is one important step that needs to happen to protect human health and the environment," he said. “One of the criticisms is that a lot of municipalities feel this is an unfunded mandate; that they’ve put these regulations out without any funding. And now, the cities are left to deal with it. The good part is, they’ve given us five years to figure it out.”

He said throughout the city, they found 22 of 29 water wells had levels of PFAS, but only 11 had levels above the new maximum contaminant level.

"So, what we immediately did was we started figuring out which wells to pump from so that we could minimize the amount of PFAS going into the system and into the finished water,” Horvath said.  

Technology exists to filter out PFAS from the water, but right now, the burden is falling on municipalities, not manufacturers. 

“We, along with a number of municipalities, joined a class-action lawsuit against manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, and we hope to recover some money from that to be able to use for the treatment, but we also realize that probably won’t cover all the costs that we’ll have, so some of this will be borne by ratepayers,” Horvath said.

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