The so-called forever chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, aren’t household words yet, but the state government-focused news site Stateline says they are "everywhere." And new data released this month by DHEC show that, at least when it comes to South Carolina’s waterways, that’s not much of an exaggeration.
As Columbia’s State newspaper reports, the agency’s new testing program found that nearly all 90 rivers, creeks and lakes it had tested contained the chemicals, which can cause developmental delays in children, an increased risk of cancer, decreased fertility, metabolic disorders and damage to the immune system.
The water- and heat-resistant compounds are found in cookware, packaging, cosmetics, clothing, carpet, electronics, firefighting foam and many other products. They don’t break down naturally (hence the "forever chemicals" nickname). And they have been largely unregulated until recently, with the biggest advances coming this year when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first reduced the recommended maximum exposure to them by more than 3,500-fold and then, earlier this month, advised states to start regulating their release into the water.
DHEC’s plan for its new testing program says the sites were concentrated in areas where there was a high chance that the chemicals had seeped into the surface water: near U.S. Defense and Energy department sites, landfills, airports, firefighting training facilities and industrial sites that produce or synthesize PFAS-containing products. For instance, the sites included waterways near Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, where 2019 lab testing paid for by The Post and Courier found high levels of PFAS had seeped into the groundwater that residents were drinking.
Although some of the levels in South Carolina’s waterways were below the EPA’s new recommendation of less than 1 part per trillion, most are well above that number, and even above the EPA’s old guideline of 70 parts per trillion. Among the worst readings, the paper reports:
• The Pocataligo River near Manning, 7,663 parts per trillion.
• Big Generostee Creek near Anderson, 754 parts per trillion.
• Chinquapin Creek along the Lexington-Aiken county border, 382 parts per trillion.
• Lake Conestee south of Greenville, 328 parts per trillion.
• Fishing Creek in Chester County, 306 parts per trillion.
• Buffalo Creek near Union, 264 parts per trillion.
• Log Branch between Allendale and the Savannah River Site, 133 parts per trillion.
The Ashley River at North Charleston had the highest level of contamination in Charleston County, at 77 parts per trillion. But while our local waterways aren’t among the most polluted, they still contain levels that the nation’s environmental protection agency considers unsafe. And South Carolina is a small state whose waterways are connected, so extraordinarily high levels of contamination in any part of our state should be worrisome.
And when there is so much contamination statewide, it should spur action.
The Legislature allocated $10 million this year to address one part of the PFAS problem, providing grants for drinking water systems to reduce or remove the contamination. Unfortunately, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina notes that DHEC is taking a while to allocate any of the funding.
As The Post and Courier’s Uncovered investigative series and earlier reporting by The State revealed, South Carolina’s small municipal and private water systems are plagued by incompetence, conflicts of interest and an utter failure of oversight. All of that means the Legislature needs to do a lot more in terms of governance reforms for public and private water system operators to ensure they supply safe drinking water. But the funding for cleanups should help, so we’d like to see DHEC pick up the pace.
While cleaning up the contamination that already plagues our water systems is important, it’s even more important — and much cheaper — to reduce the new contamination that is occurring every day as chemicals pour into our groundwater and surface water, feeding those water systems and also providing recreation and fish that are easily contaminated.
We welcome DHEC’s decision to test the surface water, which a spokesman described to The State as an effort to understand the scope of the problem. Now that we have that understanding, it’s time to act.
The high existing levels of PFAS in our surface water make it particularly important to slow the addition of more, and the EPA’s Dec. 6 memorandum makes it clear that state regulators have the authority under a federal clean water law to limit the release of the most dangerous PFAS into our water. That’s what DHEC needs to do. Sooner than later.