Improved testing for ‘forever chemicals’ in Cleveland water will begin in September

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Division of Water will begin testing for forever chemicals in public drinking water later this year using improved technology for detecting the harmful contaminants.

The testing is the result of two U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandates, including one announced last week by the Biden administration that sets enforceable limits on specific types of PFAS found in public drinking water.

The other, published at the end of 2021, requires public water departments to test for a number of unregulated chemicals, including PFAS and lithium.

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are better known as forever chemicals because of the extremely long time it takes for them to break down in the environment.

The chemicals are widely used in consumer products, including nonstick cookware and stain-resistant textiles, as well as foam for fighting fires. Exposure to certain levels of the chemicals can increase the risk of cancer, cause developmental delays in children, decrease fertility and vaccine response, and lead to other health concerns, according to the EPA.

So, what does this mean for the 1.4 million customers across 80 communities, mostly in Cuyahoga County, that depend on Cleveland to provide safe and reliable drinking water to their homes and businesses?

The Plain Dealer and reached out to the Division of Water to find out, and officials there expressed optimism that the city’s water supply will be found to be in compliance with the new rule.

But first, a little bit of background.

Scope of the problem

Of the 66,000 public drinking waters systems in the country that will be governed by the new EPA rule, 6% to 10% of them “may have to take action” to meet the new standards, according to the EPA.

“By reducing exposure to PFAS, this final rule will prevent thousands of premature deaths, tens of thousands of serious illnesses, including certain cancers and liver and heart impacts in adults, and immune and developmental impacts to infants and children,” the EPA stated.

While there are thousands of forever chemicals in existence, only a handful fall under the new standards. They are PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS and HFPO-DA, as well as mixtures of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and HFPO-DA.

PFOA, a former ingredient of Teflon, and PFOS, which was once used in Scotchgard, are the “most notorious” of the forever chemicals. Both substances have been phased out of production in the United States, according to the Environmental Working Group, which has been long been advocating for the elimination of PFAS.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also announced in February that “grease-proofing materials” with PFAS are no longer being sold for use in food packaging, such as popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers.

New rule expected

The new drinking water standards finalized last week by the EPA have been on the radar screen of Cleveland’s water department for some time, said Alex Margevicius, commissioner of the city’s Division of Water.

They dovetail with the city’s need to perform the final round of testing under the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, which requires testing for 29 forever chemicals and lithium.

That testing will begin in September of this year and go through June of 2025. If forever chemicals that fall under the new rule are found to be above the enforceable standard, remedial action will have to be taken.

Better methods of testing for PFAS means their presence can be measured more precisely than in the past. Two forever chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, will have to meet a standard of four parts per trillion, and three others will have to meet a limit of 10 parts per trillion. Other standards will apply to various mixtures of the chemicals found in the water.

The levels are based on the evidence of harm the chemicals can cause as well as the technology and cost involved to remove them, said David Andrews, deputy director of investigations and senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group.

Testing must be completed within three years and remediation, if necessary, put in place within five years. The EPA is making $1 billion available to help water department’s test and, if necessary, treat their water.

City is optimistic

As for what the future will hold, the Cleveland Division of Water is encouraged by the fact that all previous testing of raw water taken from Lake Erie and of treated water that is piped to the public has not detected forever chemicals, Margevicius said. All of the forever chemicals tested by Ohio EPA in 2020 were for levels as low as 5 parts per trillion, excpet one that had a detection limit of 25 parts per trillion.

The intakes for the city’s water are three to five miles offshore in Lake Erie.

There are three methods public utilities can use to remove forever chemicals from their water supply. One of them, a granular activated carbon system, has been employed by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in an area of southeastern North Carolina especially affected by forever chemicals.

Two other filtering methods use reverse osmosis and ion exchange resins.

Most utilities that will have to take remedial action will use granular activated carbon, as it also removes other contaminants besides forever chemicals and is less expensive than the next-likely technology to be used, reverse osmosis, Andrews said.

Andrews said that if forever chemicals are detected in public drinking water, consumers can purchase affordable filtering systems that can be installed in the home.