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‘Forever chemicals’ detected at five Louisiana sites along the Mississippi River

Mississippi River overview aerial new orleans industry
Kezia Setyawan
An aerial view of barges and container ships traveling down the Mississippi River in April 2022. Industrial plants line the river banks.

Some of the “forever chemicals” that scientists have linked to various health risks were found at five different locations of the Mississippi River in Louisiana at levels well above the EPA’s most recent guidance, according to a new report released last week by a nonprofit organization.

The chemicals, classified under the umbrella of PFAS, or per-and polyfluorinated substances, were found in samples of Mississippi River water at five sites this summer, stretching from Pointe Coupée Parish to St. James Parish, according to a report produced by the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans, an advocacy group that focuses on the needs of the urban water sector.

PFAS chemicals, of which there are more than 9,000 varieties, are ubiquitous in the United States and around the world. The synthetic chemicals, which have been widely used in consumer products like non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers and plastic containers — and in various industries like aeronautics, construction and electronics – tend to break down very slowly, hence the “forever chemical” moniker.

Toxic PFAS chemicals have contaminated more than 57,000 locations across the country, according to one study. Another study found that 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. 

A National Toxicology review found that both PFOS and PFOA are “presumed to be” immune hazards to humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have stated that scientific research suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may be linked to, among other things, increased cholesterol levels and a heightened risk of testicular or kidney cancer. High levels of exposure to PFBA was linked to thyroid and liver impacts in animals.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has struggled to catch up with regulating the emerging contaminant. It issued new advisories on the chemicals in June, lowering its recommendations from 70 parts per trillion (ppt) to 0.02 ppt for PFOS and 0.004 ppt for PFOA, both of which are interim standards.

The Water Collaborative sampled Mississippi River surface water at 31 locations in nine parishes from June 22, 2022 through July 2, 2022. The group also tested soil samples along the river.

Some of the highest readings the Water Collaborative documented in its report were levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) that exceeded, in one instance, the EPA’s new health advisory limits in water by more than 26,000%, according to the report.

The Water Collaborative’s study did not assign blame to any one industry, company or source of PFAS. But Rebecca Malpass, policy and research director of the Water Collective, would eventually like to see greater regulation of the contaminants.

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“We're not just doing the study and moving on, we're going to use this information to help community members advocate for themselves, build solutions, and work on policy changes,” she said.

“Setting standards and requiring testing” would be one goal, she said during a press conference on Friday. While there are some options available for consumers to filter PFAS out of their drinking water, the technology available to water utilities is considerably expensive.

One water utility in Cape Fear, North Carolina, however, is operating with granular activated carbon filters in an effort to filter out PFAS. Federal regulations may help persuade other utilities to pursue filtering at scale, Malpass said.

In the absence of a general scientific consensus about the hazards of any given PFAS concentration, states have enacted a patchwork of their own regulations. Approximately thirty states, including Louisiana, lack regulations altogether. The rest have adopted standards that can vary widely. For instance, California has a drinking water standard of 5.1 ppt standard for PFOA, while, at the other end of the spectrum, Nevada’s guidance for perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) is 667,000 ppt.

Two thirds of Louisianians get their drinking water from ground sources like aquifers or wells.

Sourcing, responsibility

Companies that produce a lot of PFAS chemicals, like 3M, based in Minnesota, have faced increased scrutiny and pressure, including from investors, to reform their manufacturing practices in order to reduce or eliminate their PFAS output. The company pledged last year to eliminate all PFAS output by the year 2025. The state of California sued 3M and DuPont last year over the “staggering” clean-up costs associated with the PFAS chemicals the state claims they’ve placed in the environment.

The 2019 movie Dark Waters was inspired by a case involving the chemical PFOA, manufactured from a Teflon plant in West Virginia. DuPont and its spinoff Chemours Co. ultimately agreed to settle for $671 million the thousands of lawsuits stemming from the plant’s contamination that allegedly had been linked to six different diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers. The companies did not admit fault as part of the settlement.

A National Toxicology review found that both PFOS and PFOA are “presumed to be” immune hazards to humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have stated that scientific research suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may be linked to, among other things, increased cholesterol levels and a heightened risk of testicular or kidney cancer. High levels of exposure to PFBA was linked to thyroid and liver impacts in animals.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) have both tested for PFAS, but in different capacities.
Greg Langley, a spokesman for LDEQ, told The Lens that the agency has not done a “systematic survey for PFOS/PFOA” in the state, and as such, does not have a statewide database. But the agency does test for PFAS “as part of screening at remediation sites when we suspect PFOS was handled there,” he said.

“LDEQ is aware there are many sources of PFOS/PFOA, and it’s a national problem,” Langley said. “We are closely following EPA’s rulemaking process concerning PFAS/PFOS. Right now there is only a risk number, not an enforceable standard.”

A complicating factor at the moment in terms of evaluating the risks of PFAS concentrations is that the EPA has yet to publish maximum contaminant levels for certain PFAS chemicals, Remucal said. The EPA said it would produce proposed rules for PFOS and PFOA by the end of 2022, Remucal said.

LDH shared a dataset with The Lens that contains thousands of entries for PFAS testing the agency has conducted throughout the state – for both “treated” water test results and “untreated” water test results – starting in June 2019 and extending through November 2022.

The vast majority of the entries in the dataset documented no signs of PFAS, per the EPA’s standards for minimum reporting levels, but some areas – including some that rely on the Mississippi River for their drinking water – tested positive.

Surface water treatment plants in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Charles, St. John and Ascension Parishes – which all rely, to some degree, on surface water from the Mississippi River for drinking water – tested positive for at least one type of PFAS chemical, according to the data. The highest reading from that bunch, which were included in the treated dataset, came from New Orleans, which clocked in at 4.3 ng/l of PFOA.

“Water systems that had test results for PFOS/PFOA above the new Interim Health Advisories for PFOS/PFOA were notified of that in June of 2022,” Kevin Litten, interim press secretary for LDH told The Lens on Monday. “LDH will continue to sample water systems for PFAS compounds and provide guidance as needed.”

The Water Collaborative’s findings are generally consistent with the concentration levels that researchers have observed elsewhere in the country, namely in the Great Lakes, Christina Remucal, associate professor and director of the water science and engineering laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told The Lens.

One recent study published in the journal Environmental Research found elevated concentrations of PFAS in freshwater fish, especially those in the Great Lakes region. Other research has documented PFAS in the region’s rainwater. 

“The old [advisory] of 70 parts per trillion was too high – I think everyone thought that was way too high,” Remucal told The Lens. “And I think the new one kind of swung a little bit in the opposite direction.”

industrial facility aerial louisiana
Kezia Setyawan
An aerial image of an oil refinery situated along the Mississippi River.

The agency, though, says it’s working hard to produce a proposed regulation.

The “EPA’s goal is to propose a PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) in the coming weeks,” a statement from the agency conveyed to The Lens on Tuesday said. “The draft proposed rule is currently undergoing interagency review, and EPA will issue the proposed rule for public comment when it clears the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The agency anticipates finalizing the rule by the end of 2023.”

The proposed rule is currently pending interagency review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is part of OMB.

Researchers simply need more data with which to work, Remucal said, and it’s in that context that the Water Collaborative’s report is providing an essential service.

“Because PFAS are not regulated at the federal level, there hasn't been as much testing as there needs to be. So finding out where we have hotspots and where we don't is really important,” she said.

“It's hard to get people to test,” she said, adding that if utilities “don't have to test, they won't.” Therefore, “anything that's making people more aware is really important,” she said.

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation. The Water Collaborative also receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation. 

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