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Elevated 'forever chemicals' found in Kennewick's drinking water

caption:  The City of Kennewick has found “forever chemicals” in its drinking water.
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The City of Kennewick has found “forever chemicals” in its drinking water.
Flickr Creative Commons

The city of Kennewick has detected “forever chemicals,” known as PFAs, in its drinking water. It’s one of at least 23 drinking water systems in Washington state that has higher levels of these chemicals.

For nearly a decade, Kennewick has tested its drinking water supplies for PFAs chemicals. Tests from last month showed the chemicals are above state and federal standards. In April, the federal government enacted stricter PFAs standards.

Testing in Kennewick found levels at 17.9 parts per trillion, slightly above state standards of 15 parts per trillion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered its standards to four parts per trillion each for two types of these chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS.

Kennewick found PFOS in its system.

“I just like to caution people not to think the sky is falling. These are very low concentrations. It's one drop of water in 20 Olympic swimming pools,” said Jeremy Lustig, the city’s utility services manager.

Water samples are sent to a lab each quarter, Lustig said. Operators discovered the water sample ports were held in place with Teflon tape, which could be a source of PFAs contamination. It’s unclear if that led to higher testing samples, he said.

“We're going to go and redo all of our sample ports to ensure that … if there's any skewing of the data that that's been removed for as a question,” Lustig said.

The chemicals were found at the Ranney Collector, which pulls groundwater for the city. Leaders are considering several different cleanup options, Lustig said, including stopping using the groundwater system or treating the collector.

“If we completely abandon that facility and no longer take groundwater, it would mean we would have to increase our capacity at our water treatment plant that takes surface water from the river and has zero trace of PFAs,” he said. “At this point, we're leaning toward treating the facility because it provides redundancy and flexibility within our system.”

General costs could range from $25 million to $30 million, he said. The state provides up to $12 million of loan forgiveness if water systems qualify, he said.

No matter what, the city will update the Ranney Collector system because it won’t meet the new, stringent federal standards, Lustig said.

According to the EPA, the new federal regulations could affect 6% to 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems in the U.S.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances came into use in the 1940s. These materials help repel oil and water and resist heat, according to the EPA. They are commonly found in products such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant clothing and firefighting foam.

These chemicals can get into drinking water in a variety of ways, including through firefight tactics, items thrown in a landfill and manufacturing emissions.

It’s unclear how these chemicals made it into Kennewick’s drinking water, Lustig said. It could have been from fire fighting foam or an old airport in town, he said.

These chemicals accumulate in people and animals. According to the Washington State Department of Health, PFAs at these levels can be harmful for people who are pregnant and babies who are breastfed or have tap water in their formula. At higher concentrations, PFAs have been linked to some cancers, liver and heart disease.

The health department recommends using or installing water filters that are approved to reduce PFAs. [Copyright 2024 Northwest News Network]

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