Louisville, Kentucky faces the same problem as many municipalities when it comes to its water supply: traces of PFOA, or C8, the Dupont chemical used in the production of Teflon, implicated in a wide range of health problems. Like Parkersville, West Virginia, where Dupont's Washington Works Plant is located, Louisville is located on the banks of the Ohio River – into which 23 million pounds of toxic chemicals were dumped in 2013 alone. The most polluted river in the U.S., the Ohio River provides water for the city to the tune of 126 gallons per day – feeding homes, businesses, schools and more. Despite this, water engineers for the city have found C8 levels in municipal water supplies to be well below the safety limit determined by the EPA. However, there is a serious question: is there a safe level of C8 exposure?
According to many environmental scientists, the answer is no. Kelley Smith, a spokesperson for the Louisville Water Company, assures city residents that their drinking water is safe. “Our scientists do not see this as a public health concern,” she says. “We have monitored for PFOA the past several years...we're well below the health advisory level.” Earlier this year, the EPA set the maximum “safe” level at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). According to that agency, Louisville's levels are at 20 – though the water utility company claims recent data shows those levels to be closer to 5 ppt.
That doesn't matter to David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. Mr. Andrews says “There’s significant evidence that there’s potential harm at lower concentrations.” One of the problems is that there is no good way to know if there is a “safe” level, because most of the evidence that has been studied comes from subjects who have been exposed to high levels of C8. Jerome Paulson, an environmental health consultant, points out, “There are no direct human studies of exposure to the PFOA because you’re not going to feed these to human beings and look for outcome.”
It's worth pointing out that the European Union has set that “safe” maximum level of PFOA at only 1 ppt – far below the EPA's “advisory” level. That is another problem – the EPA's recommendation is just that – a recommendation. It does not have the force of law. Andrews says that is why utility companies are dragging their heels on the issue. It's also about money: treating water for C8 is costly. The Louisville Water Company employs a granulated activated carbon filtering system in order to remove most of the chemical. However, Paulson suggests that homeowners concerned about water toxicity install a reverse osmosis (RO) water filter as well. These systems use a semipermeable membrane to filter out inorganic solids from water. They are very effective, particularly when used in conjunction with an activated charcoal filter. However, an RO filtration system can cost up to $2400 for an entire home.
That is far less than the alternative, however – which can include a range of illnesses, including cancer. By rights, it's a bill that should be picked up by Dupont – and not just for the victims of C8 poisoning.