EPA to limit amount of harmful chemicals in Georgia waters

New Federal protections from ‘forever chemicals’ now in place
New Federal Protections From ‘Forever Chemicals’ Now in Place
Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 5:41 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - For the first time, federal regulators set a lower threshold for what’s considered “safe” levels of a dangerous group of chemical compounds.

Perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – abbreviated as PFAS and PFOS – were first used in manufacturing in the 1930s. The compounds are found in countless household items and are often times used in waterproofing. Clothing, shoes, other textiles, dental floss, toilet paper, and firefighting foam can often contain high levels of the substances known as “forever chemicals” because of their inability to break down in the environment.

“PFAS is a dangerous type of chemical and it can cause lots of harm to humans including certain types of cancer and reproductive harm,” said Jason Ulseth, with the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers. “They last for a very long period of time and we’re finding them all over the world, including here on the Chattahoochee River.”

RELATED: ‘It’s a dirty job:’ How traps are keeping trash out of the Chattahoochee River.

Georgia ranks high on the list of states with PFAS-contaminated sites and the chemicals have been found in at least seven Georgia counties, including stretches of the Chattahoochee in Cobb County. The river provides a source of municipal water to at least 5 million people, providing 100 million gallons of water each day to metro-Atlanta residents.

“A lot of people don’t understand that when you turn on your tap or you turn on your shower, that’s Chattahoochee River water coming into your households,” said Ulseth. “But very little is known about the level of contamination that we have here locally on the Chattahoochee River.”

The Riverkeepers have recently started testing sections of the river to pinpoint the areas where PFAS pose an especially large risk. Typically, they have a presence near sites that use PFAS in their manufacturing, but they can spread rapidly with the flowing water.

“We haven’t really gotten a handle on the level of contamination across the state, across the state the country, across the world,” said Ulseth.

On Tuesday, for the very first time, the federal government put its foot down on manufacturers that use the substance. The Environmental Protection Agency announced it is lowering the threshold for what is considered “safe” levels to the lowest possible rate that testing can detect: 4 parts per trillion.

The old threshold was 70 parts per trillion.

“My guess is that four [parts per trillion] is a more conservative and more reasonable thing to do, although it’s going to be hard to get this out of the water systems in many parts of the country,” said Emory University epidemiologist Kyle Steenland. “I think it’s good, I think they should’ve acted on it.”

Steenland was one of the first researchers to look into the impacts of PFAS after he conducted research for a class-action lawsuit against DuPont Chemical in West Virginia.

He was clear – everyone has some level of PFAS in their blood, but extreme exposure yields the more horrifying results.

“My guess is millions of people are drinking very low levels that may be of less concern,” Steenland said.

The EPA’s new limits are expected to reduce exposure to PFAS for around 100 million Americans. Last year, the Biden administration allotted $10 billion in funding through the president’s infrastructure legislation to remediate PFAS in communities around the country.

The Georgia Environmental Finance Authority didn’t return Atlanta News First’s calls to see how that money was spent.

For residents wanting to learn more about PFAS exposure in Georgia, the EPA is hosting a series of virtual sessions. Georgia’s will take place Tuesday, March 21st from 6-8 p.m. EST.

For more information on those, click here.