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Maryland to begin testing drinking water, Chesapeake Bay oysters for harmful ‘forever chemicals’ known as PFAS

Pat Elder discovered the carcinogen PFAS behind his home which overlooks St. Inigoes River, a tributary of the St. Mary's River in southern Maryland

Maryland regulators say they plan to test drinking water and Chesapeake Bay oysters for the presence of what are known as “forever chemicals” — a step toward potential regulation of a class of harmful human-made substances that some fear are ubiquitous.

PFAS — per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — are found in everything from stain-repellent fabrics and nonstick cookware to cleaning products and firefighting foams. They are spreading into soil and groundwater from landfills and firefighting training sites. And they can build up in humans and animals through exposure from drinking water, seafood and older consumer products.

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The Maryland Department of the Environment is finalizing a plan to collect hundreds of samples from drinking water sources around the state amid growing concern from studies linking the chemicals to liver, kidney and reproductive dysfunction, high cholesterol levels and tumor growth.

They are also exploring a broader effort to test the bay and creatures within it, starting with oysters in St. Mary’s County waters. That testing is set to begin this month.

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PFAS were first used in consumer products including nonstick pans and fabric protectants in the 1940s and 1950s, and by the 1970s were commonly used in foams to put out fires. But concerns about the chemicals building up in human bloodstreams did not enter public knowledge until the late 1990s. That alarm has grown because of more recent studies and even monitoring by concerned citizens.

Pat Elder behind his home, which overlooks St. Inigoes Creek. a tributary of the St. Mary's River in Southern Maryland Wed., Apr., 22, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Pat Elder behind his home, which overlooks St. Inigoes Creek. a tributary of the St. Mary's River in Southern Maryland Wed., Apr., 22, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

In St. Inigoes Creek in St. Mary’s County, for instance, a sample that resident and environmental activist Pat Elder recently collected showed 14 different PFAS at a total concentration of about 1,900 parts per trillion — more than 27 times a “health advisory” threshold the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set in 2016. The state now plans to do its own testing in the creek this month

Elder is among a growing chorus pressing for more public awareness of and accountability for the pervasiveness of PFAS and the threat the chemicals pose. Several European countries are moving toward restrictions on production and use of PFAS, but there is no federal standard for “safe” levels of the chemicals in drinking water, despite pressure from environmentalists and health advocates for the EPA to adopt one.

“These are extraordinarily dangerous chemicals that don’t break down in nature," Elder said. “The Europeans are way ahead of us because they understand the impact on human health.”

There exists only limited data on the presence and quantities of more than 4,000 types of PFAS chemicals in Maryland and across the country. An oft-cited 2007 study found the chemicals in the bloodstreams of 98% of Americans sampled.

Ben Grumbles, Maryland secretary of the environment, makes remarks during a rally of over 250 paddlers in kayaks, canoes and on standup paddle boards at the Inner Harbor amphitheater. They are part of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore's 4th Annual Baltimore Floatilla.
Ben Grumbles, Maryland secretary of the environment, makes remarks during a rally of over 250 paddlers in kayaks, canoes and on standup paddle boards at the Inner Harbor amphitheater. They are part of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore's 4th Annual Baltimore Floatilla. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s environment secretary, said the state is taking the risk seriously, gathering the samples to determine where the chemicals may have collected, and whether they may be present in “unacceptable” amounts.

“The key question is how prevalent they are,” he said. “This is going to remain a priority.”

As they develop a plan for PFAS testing, state officials say they plan to target areas around firefighter training sites, the site of aviation-related fires, and current and past military installation sites. Maps of those sites state officials shared with The Baltimore Sun show some concentrated in the Baltimore and Washington regions, but also widespread around the rest of the state.

In surveys from 2012 through 2015, the EPA tested more than 40 of the largest potable water systems in Maryland, including the one that serves the Baltimore region, for the presence of two of the most-studied types of PFAS chemicals. That did not reveal any levels above the EPA’s health advisory, state officials said, though they did detect traces of the PFAS chemical known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in Perryman in Harford County.

Lee Currey, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s water and science division, said the state may soon re-sample some of those water systems, acknowledging that testing technology has improved and can now detect many more types of the chemicals.

He would not say whether that might include the water system that feeds taps in Baltimore, which includes the Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty reservoirs and impoundments including Lake Montebello and Druid Lake. That system is not subject to routine monitoring for PFAS in drinking water.

“Baltimore City Department of Public Works is committed to providing the safest, best-tasting water possible,” said Jennifer Combs, a spokeswoman for the agency that operates the city water system, which also serves surrounding counties. “Once standards for PFAS are set, we will test for them.”

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In the Washington region, a recent report on PFAS in drinking water supplies around the country prompted the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to resume testing for the chemicals earlier this year.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit focused on toxic chemicals and drinking water, detected chemicals at a concentration of 17.8 parts per trillion in Prince George’s County, below the EPA health guidance level but above what the group recommends as safe, a level of 1 part per trillion. Its report, released in January, did not include any other Maryland data.

Pat Elder stands on the dock with a sign for the Oyster Recovery Zone, behind his home, which overlooks St. Inigoes Creek. a tributary of the St. Mary's River in Southern Maryland Wed., Apr., 22, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Pat Elder stands on the dock with a sign for the Oyster Recovery Zone, behind his home, which overlooks St. Inigoes Creek. a tributary of the St. Mary's River in Southern Maryland Wed., Apr., 22, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

The Washington-area commission had previously tested for six different PFAS compounds from July 2013 through March 2014 and again from April 2015 through October 2017. In response to the nonprofit’s January report, the commission noted that past results did not raise concern, and that 1 part per trillion is equivalent to a drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The MDE’s Currey said the state plans to collect and test as many as 1,000 drinking water samples over many months, under a $300,000 EPA grant received last year. Initial testing, which has been delayed in part because of stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, will guide where further investigations may be needed, he said.

The chemicals have never been produced in Maryland, Currey said, suggesting that concentrations may not rise to levels discovered elsewhere around the country.

Suspected sources of high levels of PFAS chemicals in Maryland include landfills and wastewater treatment plants, as well as the firefighting training and military sites. State and federal regulators are working with the U.S. Navy to explore potential contamination at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, where a lab conducted some research to help develop firefighting foams.

Only limited information may be released publicly about where drinking water testing ultimately is conducted, Currey said. He said the state keeps secret the locations of drinking water supplies out of what he called “homeland security concerns."

The testing of oysters and surface waters in St. Inigoes Creek will serve as a pilot project that could lead to further sampling around the Chesapeake, he said.

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“I think each step of the way we’re going to learn something new,” Currey said.

If high levels of PFAS chemicals are found, he said, the state would explore the same types of remediation efforts already being conducted for environmental contamination by other types of toxins. That can include using a substance known as activated carbon to filter the chemicals out of drinking water and groundwater.

Concern over PFAS contamination has increased since the 2018 documentary “The Devil We Know” and the feature film “Dark Waters,” released last year, explored contamination and deaths at a DuPont plant in West Virginia.

DuPont, which no longer owns the plant and says PFAS manufacturing is no longer part of its business, says research to understand the chemicals’ health effects and ensure their safety is ongoing.

Maryland is among 29 states that have passed policies regarding PFAS chemicals. A law passed this year prohibits use of foams that contain PFAS during firefighter training starting in October 2021. A dozen states have passed or proposed limits on the chemicals in drinking water, but Maryland is not one of them, according to Safer States, a coalition that tracks such policies around the country.

At the federal level, efforts to push for a national standard for PFAS in drinking water have stalled. Congress passed a bill in January that would have required the EPA to set such a rule, but the proposal has languished after President Donald Trump threatened to veto it.

The EPA says it is working through the regulatory process to establish national drinking water standards for the two most studied PFAS chemicals, PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS.

But the agency warned that moving too fast would limit opportunities for public input and could create a heavy burden for state and local governments, water utilities and private companies. The Trump administration also suggested that PFAS restrictions could make it harder to fight fires.

Maryland officials said they are stepping up in response to that inaction.

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