Jan 18, 2024

'Forever chemicals' turn up in Mims and Titusville drinking water

So-called "forever chemicals" that were once used to fend off fires now nag water systems throughout the United States, with uncertain health consequences.

This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed that 26 million people in hundreds of communities have these toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in their drinking water.

Brevard County's water treatment plant in Mims was among them. Under EPA rules, Titusville wasn't due to test for the compounds until next year. But the city went ahead with testing this year, anyway, finding similar PFAS chemicals in the city's water as the county found in Mims.

PFAS compounds are not currently under enforcement federal regulations. But last year EPA cut the safe level of a chemical called PFOA by more than 17,000 times what the agency had previously said was protective of health, to now just four "parts per quadrillion." The safe level of a sister chemical, PFOS, was reduced by a factor of 3,500.

Every five years, EPA develops a new list of contaminants for monitoring. This is the latest list, which includes 29 different PFAS compounds.

It's an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS also are known as "forever chemicals" due to their stable chemical bonds — some of the strongest in nature — which make them extremely resistant to breaking down into less harmful compounds in the environment or the human body. They have been used in wide variety of products from nonstick cookware to fire-fighting foam.

Samples taken on Jan. 9, 2023 from Brevard County's Mims treatment plant had results that ranged from 3 to 13.2 parts per trillion (ppt). Titusville's PFAS results ranged from 0.39 ppt to 5.6 ppt.

One part per trillion is roughly the equivalent of a single grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

While the levels in Mims' water are considered extremely low, emerging science is finding that even at trace levels some PFAS compounds have been linked to increased lifetime risks from kidney, testicular and several other types of cancer; low birthweights; thyroid disease; high cholesterol and other health ailments. PFAS can even blunt the effectiveness of vaccines, including those against COVID-19.

"This is the first test of a standard that is proposed to be based on an annual average of these test," Public Works Director Kevin Cook said in an email. "As more quarterly testing is completed the City will be able to evaluate the results in relation to the proposed rule."

The city hasn't begun to look into specific sources, Cook added, or for "specific treatment adjustments or improvements" to address this testing information as we need more testing to determine the magnitude and improvement needs."

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group puts out a guide on which types of home water filters can remove PFAS compounds. You can find the guide on their website here:

Make sure the filter has been tested by an independent third party, using American National Standards Institute's protocols.

EPA found PFAS at 431 of about 2,000 water systems (1 in 5) at levels above minimum reporting limits. PFOA and PFOS are two of the most widely studied PFAS. One or each of them was measured at or above EPA’s Health Advisory levels, for 7.8 to 8.5% of public water systems with results to date.

EPA released data for only a quarter of water systems but the data jibes with what scientists at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group estimated in 2020: more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water.

Environmental Working Group maintains a drinking water database where you can search by Zip Code to find your drinking water system: The data includes PFAS and other compounds sampled.

Basically everywhere scientists look, they find PFAS. Recent research by University of Florida has found high levels of the compounds in the tissues of manatees, alligators, fish, seagrass, lagoon water and the foam that laps up on the lagoon banks on windy days.

They get into the lagoon from contaminated soil, sewage, reclaimed water, biosolids, and countless consumer products. Experts say there’s no cheap or easy way of getting them out of the environment, or of even measuring them.

Health information and occurrence data will be updated on a quarterly basis until completion of data reporting in 2026.

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