Many Ky. water systems exceed new federal limits for ‘forever chemicals’; all systems must test for 3 years, correct if needed

WKYT map, adapted by Kentucky Health News

By Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

Several Kentucky water systems, mostly on and near the Ohio River, will have to fund ways to reduce certain cancer-causing substaces for which the first federal limits were issued Wednesday, April 10.

The substances are PFAS, a joint acronym for per-fluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, which are widespread and last a long time in the environment without breaking down, so they accumulate in the human body. They have been linked to low birth weights, liver disease and kidney cancer.

The substances have been used in waterproof clothing, nonstick frying pans and firefighting foam. For example, PFOS was the key ingredient in the fabric protector Scotchgard and related stain repellents, and PFOA was used in carpeting, cloth and sealants.

Public water systems will test for the chemicals for three years. If the limits are exceeded, the new Environmental Protection Agency rules will give them two more years to install treatment systems.

The state Department for Environmental Protection listed these water systems as exceeding the new limits of 4 parts per trillion: Ashland (4.74 PFOA), Augusta (4.43 PFOA), Cynthiana (8.35 PFOS), Georgetown (5.46 PFOS), Lewisport (Hancock County, 12.7 PFOS), Maysville (5.09 PFOA), North Marshall County Water District (11.8 PFOA), Paducah (4.54 PFOS, 4.07 PFOA), Russell (5.62 PFOA), South Shore (23.2 PFOA, 18.9 PFOS). The last two towns are in Greenup County.

The Louisville Water Co.’s Payne Plant at Prospect had a PFOS level of 4.31, but the level at its Crescent Hill plant was only 2.75.

Some water systems exceeded the EPA requirements in at least one test in 2019 and 2023 but were not listed as exceeding the new limits during the period. Those were Brandenburg, the Graves County Water District, Hardin County Water District No. 2, Henderson (north), Kuttawa, Morganfield, Northern Kentucky Water District (Fort Thomas), Owensboro, Providence, Sturgis and Worthington (Greenup County).

Erin Haynes, chair of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Kentucky, has studied the chemicals for many years. “It’s all around us,” she told WKYT. “So we need to just be conscientious of different sources and how we can do our best to reduce our exposure. But analyzing it and reducing the levels in our drinking water is a wonderful step in the right direction.”

“Some funds are available to help utilities,” The Associated Press reports. “Manufacturer 3M recently agreed to pay more than $10 billion to drinking water providers to settle PFAS litigation. And the bipartisan infrastructure law includes billions to combat the substance. But utilities say more will be needed.”

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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