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State officials: Levels of 'forever' chemicals found in 3 McLean County community water supplies are not a concern

Normal Water Works sign
Eric Stock
Normal is one of three McLean County communities that showed traceable levels of PFAs, but the Illinois EPA said their drinking water is safe.

Many products we use every day contain chemicals that end up in our water supplies, and our bodies.

At large enough quantities, those chemicals can be harmful. Exactly how harmful is unknown. Three McLean County communities recently detected measurable amounts of these so-called forever chemicals in their water supplies.

Town and state water officials assure the drinking water is safe, but an Illinois State University professor who studies water issues says there's too much we don't know.

PFAs, or perfluoroalkly and polyfluoroalkly substances, are found in everything from fast food wrappers to cooking utensils to water-resistant clothing.

PFAs are called "forever" chemicals because they don't break down in the environment. The state of Illinois first started testing for these chemicals two years ago. The data show 12% of Illinois communities detected traceable levels, including Normal, Heyworth and Saybrook. Traceable is anything above 2 parts per trillion.

John Burkhart, Normal's water director, said there's no cause for concern.

“I guess it’s scary to people. When you’re talking that you are finding something down in the parts per trillion level, you can find anything when you look small enough, anywhere,” Burkhart said.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) said the same thing. Sanjay Sofat is chief of the agency’s water bureau. He said PFAs levels, while measurable, were nowhere near worrisome levels in McLean County.

“It’s barely (a) detection is what our opinion is, and it’s well, well, well below the health advisory,” Sofat said.

Note Sofit said “health advisory” when referring to PFAs. Forever chemicals are not regulated at the state or federal level.

Some who study water quality find that troubling.

“I think we need a healthy level of concern for this,” said Joan Brehm, co-director of the Center for a Sustainable Water Future at Illinois State University. Brehm calls for zero-tolerance when it comes to PFAs.

“I think that we should be calling for no level of PFAs in our drinking water, much like we do for lead,” Brehm said. “We don’t accept lead in our water and I think the same should go for PFAs.”

Health effects

Study of the health effects of these forever chemicals is relatively new. The U.S. EPA released a report in June that said exposure to some of these chemicals can affect the immune system and heart and lungs. Exposure also can lead to cancer and low birth weight babies.

The report said more testing is needed and for some PFAs, no known cancer studies exist.

Sofat said the state’s health guidelines are based on the best available data.

“The toxicity data that we use to develop those health advisory numbers have been peer reviewed. We have a lot of confidence in the data we are using,” he said.

If these forever chemicals would ever have to be removed, it wouldn't be easy. For one, Brehm said it's hard to know for certain where the chemicals are coming from. “It could be related to historical activities in those areas that may have utilized PFAs either through manufacturing or other industries that might create pockets of concentration in that area,” she said.

All three McLean County communities that show measurable PFAs get their water from the Mahomet Aquifer. Burkhart said six of the Town of Normal's 12 wells detected PFAs. He said the town can try to dilute PFAs where it's present.

“We can run different well combinations now and blend it out so that it is below a detectable level,” he said.

Burkhart said the state simply told the town to monitor the levels by testing quarterly. “There’s a lot of communities that have higher numbers and (the state EPA) is concentrating on them. They just did not see it being a feasible thing at this point in time,” Burkhart said.

About half of the communities that showed detectable PFAs were above the state's health guidelines. Many of them are along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, Chicago and the collar counties.

Enforcement and mitigation

PFAs regulations could be coming. Sofat said all the testing the IEPA did over the last two years will help form the basis for new regulations the Illinois Pollution Control Board will consider. He said the state could then have the power to enforce PFAs water standards.

Compliance would likely cost a lot for many communities.

Burkhart said, for now, the town's water is fine, and it doesn't need to make major changes. If the state decided to enforce strict PFAs standards, he said the town would likely need to overhaul its water treatment.

Currently, Burkhart said the town is exploring a reverse osmosis system that would remove ammonia from its water. Burkhart said that would take care of ammonia and PFAs. It would cost the town $40 million to $50 million. He said the town would have to borrow money, but he stressed that won't happen in the near future.

Brehm wants PFAs regulations, but she doesn't want municipalities to bear the cost to fix the water supplies. She said the government should force the industries that create these potentially toxic chemicals to pay.

“I think a lot of this comes down to an inability or lack of political will to hold industry accountable for their contaminants, for their waste products,” Brehm said.

For now, cleanup will be left up to the municipalities. Congress approved $1 billion in the recent infrastructure bill for state and local governments to reduce PFAs and other contaminants in drinking water.

Recently, Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill that limits how some PFAs can be disposed of. Environmentalists have fought to keep these forever chemicals from being incinerated to keep them from ending up back in the environment.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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