An environmental advocacy group lists Bloomington among more than 600 locations across the United States whose water may be contaminated with a highly toxic compound, while city officials maintain the city’s water is safe.
The Environmental Working Group recently released a report which indicated Bloomington tested positive for trace levels of PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances). The group claims as of March, the compound has been detected in 43 states, potentially contaminating the drinking water systems of more than 19 million people.
A test in 2013 detected PFAS at 47 parts-per-trillion in Bloomington’s groundwater, which falls below the Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory threshold for 70 parts-per-trillion which would trigger mitigation.
“It’s not as great a concern as what we have seen in some other contaminated systems, but certainly it’s a level that if it were I my water, I wouldn’t be drinking it without a filter,” said Bill Walker, editor in chief of EWG.org.
Bloomington Public Works Director Jim Karch said the city isn’t sure how the initial study showed trace levels of PFAS, but three subsequent tests later that year showed no indication of the compound, so the city no longer had to test for it.
“We weren’t a community that needed to continue to look at it,” Karch said. “There were no concerns. We still do meet all of our state and federal requirements for safe drinking water.”
PFAS are a water soluble manmade chemical that’s used in waterproof clothing, fire-retardant foam and used to be in Teflon.
It’s generally more prevalent near military bases, airports, firefighter training sites and industrial plants and industrial landfills.
The federal Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t include enforceable limits for PFAs. The Trump administration decided earlier this year it would not require additional testing.
The EWG believes there’s enough uncertainty about PFAS they should be tested more frequently that the federal government currently requires.
Walker acknowledged the science around the safety of PFAS is still evolving, but he points to studies which show pregnant women who drink the contaminated water have a higher risk of having children with developmental disabilities, greater risk of obesity and weakened immune systems. In some cases, defects were reported in fetuses and those with weakened immune systems at just 1 part per trillion PFAS contamination in their water.
Walker said studies have shown higher rates of cancer and kidney disease for those who have had daily exposure to the chemicals over a number of years.
“Every state in the country ought to be undergoing some level of testing at least,” Walker said. “States that have not done very much testing I would say that they are not doing their duty to protect their citizens.”
Joan Brehm is a sociologist at Illinois State University and she studies water quality issues.
She said the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry has proposed capping allowable PFAS levels at 7 to 11 parts-per-trillion but the EPA hasn’t taken action on the proposal, a threshold more restrictive than what the EPA is currently suggesting.
“There’s a difference of opinion over what that standard should be,” Brehm said. “We just don’t know enough about these chemicals.
“We have a long history in this country of using chemicals and then realizing that they are not good for us. We have examples of DDT and other chemicals we have historically used where then we find out that they are in fact carcinogens.”
Brehm suggested the U.S. has it backwards when it comes to allowing chemicals to be used until they are proven unsafe. She noted in Europe, chemical regulation requires extensive testing for human and environmental health effects before a chemical can be placed on the market.
“Basically no data, no market, and here (in the U.S.), we basically have to prove that a chemical is harmful before it’s use can be stopped,” Brehm said.
Brehm added more cities and towns should take it upon themselves to test for these chemicals with or without federal mandates, though she added Bloomington and Normal have long histories of protecting the safety of their drinking water supplies.
Brehm added many mistakenly believe they can simply remove all chemicals with a water filter, but she said more commercial filters won’t remove PFAS.
Karch said most water quality problems are caused in the home.
“It is good in your home to make sure (you are) changing and cleaning out those aeration devices on the end of your faucet,” Karch said. “When’s the last time that you might have checked that? If it’s been a year or never, now would be the time.”
Breham said bottled water generally isn’t any safer than what you draw from the tap.
“The regulatory steps they have to go through for bottled water are far less in terms of assessing for contamination and such compared to municipal supplies,” Brehm said.
The report from the Environmental Working Group also showed PFAS contamination in Galesburg and Rantoul, the site of a decommissioned Air Force base. It also reported contamination in 42 other states.
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in Central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.