Water glass (copy)

A common cleaning and stain-removing chemical, perfluoroalkyls, is showing up in drinking water supplies. Efforts are intensifying to figure out what to do about it. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

The coatings scrape off your non-stick pans, wash out of raincoats, leach from discarded polishes, waxes, paints and cleaners. Now they're turning up in drinking water.

They are synthetic chemicals, perfluoroalkyls, also known as PFAs. The compounds are considered carcinogenic. They don't readily break down in the environment — or the human body — and so far can't be readily detected or inexpensively removed. But they're being found more often in drinking water.

Now, efforts are intensifying to figure out what to do about it.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency just funded Clemson University, among other organizations, to come up with new ways to decompose the chemicals or leach them out.

Meanwhile, water utilities are grappling with how to deal with an emerging problem that's as difficult to assess as it is intractable. The EPA has issued health advisories, but research has yet to determine a safe level of consumption.

The problems keep cropping up.

More than a decade after researchers found record levels of the contaminants in sick dolphins in Charleston Harbor, the same researchers at NOAA's Ocean Service, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science on James Island found unsafe levels in fish the dolphins and humans eat.

In Denmark, S.C., residents are suing after HaloSan, a type of perfluoro compound that was used to disinfect the town's drinking water, showed up in high levels at the taps.

In Pittsboro, N.C., near Raleigh, elementary schools shut off drinking water in August after high levels of a PFA were found and Duke University launched research into the health effects there.

Charleston's main water utility, Charleston Water System, finds infinitesimal amounts of PFAs in their drinking water, well below levels of federal concern, when advanced tests are done. The Santee Cooper Regional Water System plans to begin those tests.

The utilities combined provided drinking water to more than 600,000 people. They say there are no known safety concerns.

Parts per trillion

PFAs are among billions of unregulated compounds that are currently in use or have been used in the past, said Michael Saia, Charleston Water System spokesman. 

More than 3,000 PFAs or closely related chemicals have been developed but there are tests to detect fewer than 50 of them, said Jane Byrne, the water treatment director for the water system.

The water system voluntarily began testing for the chemicals in 2017 after concerns were raised in a Mount Pleasant community. 

Tests at the water system are finding PFAs in almost undetectable parts per trillion, Byrne said, levels that are only a fifth or less of the level the EPA cautions about. The EPA level of concern is 70 parts per trillion. Water system tests routinely come in at 10 to 13 parts per trillion.

A part per trillion is the equivalent of one tiny drip of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

"We're nowhere close to the EPA's health advisory," she said. "I'm not expecting to be suddenly overwhelmed by PFAs. If we ever did find (a problem), we would ultimately act."

Santee Cooper's Lake Moultrie water treatment plant has been sampled by the S.C. Department of Heath and Environmental Control and showed no detectable presence of the compounds, said spokeswoman Nicole Aiello.

The water system's main intake is downstream the Cooper River from the lakes where Santee Cooper draws water. But it's closer to the more urbanized, industrial hub of Charleston.

"Despite not being required, we do plan to test both (lakes) Marion and Moultrie to confirm there are no issues with PFAs, using laboratories certified to perform the testing at even lower detection limits as soon as they are available," Aiello said.

Availability is part of the problem.

Exposure

The EPA's advisory on the chemical compounds say that most people have been exposed to the chemicals.

"There is evidence that exposure to PFAs can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans," the advisory says and lists potential consequences such as high cholesterol, liver kidney and reproductive problems associated with exposure to some of the chemicals.

A request by state water regulators to limit Mount Pleasant Waterworks’ groundwater withdrawals to about what it drew in 2018 should be a wake…

The chemicals have caused tumors in animals, the EPA said.

But safe-level research, as well as the testing and treatment technologies, is playing catch-up to the pollution.

The levels that Charleston Water System finds in advanced tests are below levels that could be detected only a few years ago. 

"When you're talking parts per trillion you're talking absolute lows," Byrne said. "We haven't got the medical evidence yet to show what a safe level is."

Carbon filters used by both utilities do remove at least some of the compounds, but not all. The best technologies available so far are granular activated carbon and ion exchange filters, Byrne said. They are both very expensive to use meeting a utility's demand.

Traditional home water filters aren't able to remove the chemicals, the EPA said. But the ion exchange and granular activated household filters are available.

Catching up on safety is one reason behind $458,469 federal grant for the Clemson study. Because of the need for new treatment technology, the EPA investment comes at a critical time, said Ezra Cates, a Clemson earth sciences professor.

"The scale and urgency of PFAs contamination continues to grow and evolve rapidly," he said.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.