The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s chief science officer testified about the high prevalence of man-made chemicals known to harm human health around industrial and military sites in the state before a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday.
Scott Mandirola, also the department’s deputy secretary, joined three other witnesses before the Environment and Public Works Committee to call for greater federal oversight of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), citing a state-initiated study of community water systems that recently found five sites that tested positively for PFAS beyond the federal health advisory limit.
“We need a method of keeping this material out of the environment,” Mandirola said. “Not necessarily outlawing the material, but if industries are going to use it for the benefit of all, there needs to be a method of treatment, capture, proper disposal so that we keep this material out of entering the environment.”
PFAS have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the human body. The chemicals can be found in not just drinking water but food and household products.
Research shows high levels of certain PFAS may lead to increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children and increased cholesterol levels, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Mandirola testified that a study that a West Virginia Senate resolution directed the departments of Environmental Protection and Health and Human Resources to initiate last year has revealed that public water systems serving Lubeck, Vienna, Parkersburg and Glen Dale along the Ohio River and Martinsburg in the Eastern Panhandle tested positively for the presence of PFAS, including the common industrial chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) above the federal limit.
Mandirola said the Lubeck, Vienna and Parkersburg water systems’ PFOA contamination is due to the production and use of PFOA at the nearby Chemours Washington Works facility, where DuPont operated for six-plus decades prior to spinning off its performance materials division to Chemours in 2015.
The Martinsburg water system is contaminated mainly by PFOS from fire-fighting foam at a local military site, Mandirola noted.
Mandirola reported that PFOS contamination in Glen Dale’s water system is likely related to the historical use of compounds in the metal plating industry, though he added that further investigation is underway.
The study encompassing the state’s 279 public water systems will be completed next year after data analysis is conducted, Mandirola said. The U.S. Geological Survey completed sampling in May, and data will be uploaded to a Geological Survey database following final review.
“The next step in the protection of public health is the development of safe exposure limits for PFAS compounds,” Mandirola testified to committee members, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the committee’s top-ranking Republican.
Mandirola noted that although some states have developed their own maximum contaminant levels, West Virginia is relying on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop national guidelines and regulation for protecting human health from PFAS.
Joining Mandirola in urging the federal government to institute a federal drinking water quality standard were fellow witnesses Joanne Stanton, co-founder of Pennsylvania-based Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water and New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney.
G. Tracy Mehan III, executive director of governmental affairs for the American Water Works Association, stressed the importance of significantly greater funding for water systems to perform remedial work necessary to limit the presence of PFAS in drinking water.
Later this month, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission will begin its own PFAS-focused study spanning the entire length of the Ohio River, according to Mandirola.
“We just need to get a handle on what’s out there,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said.
An ardent proponent of a federal drinking water standard, Capito applauded West Virginia’s PFAS study efforts.
Federal public health officials expect to release a report later this year summarizing their findings following testing of 275 residents in Berkeley County for PFAS.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, performed exposure assessments in Berkeley County in the fall of 2019 after they started testing in communities near current or former military bases known to have had PFAS in their drinking water.
The Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base previously used aqueous film-forming foam containing PFAS to fight fires and train workers, according to federal public health officials. The compounds later moved offsite in groundwater, likely affecting the City of Martinsburg’s Big Springs well supplying drinking water to both the city and a small percentage of Berkeley County customers.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, released the individual and community-level PFAS test results in May 2020 that showed two PFAS (PFOS and perfluorohexane sulfonate, or PFHxS) above national averages. The levels of five other PFAS, including the common industrial chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), were similar to or below national averages, according to the agency.
But the final site-specific report will take a deeper look at the data and the information collected from participants via questionnaires to learn if and how levels of PFAS vary by characteristics such as age, and sex, and other social and demographic and exposure characteristics (such as length of residency in the community and amount of water consumed).
Parkersburg was the site of DuPont’s Teflon factory, which, for decades, discharged PFAS into drinking water supplies beginning in 1951. DuPont agreed not to use PFOA after 2015, but an October 2020 House Environment subcommittee letter noted a continued PFOA presence at the Chemours (formerly DuPont) Washington Works facility in Parkersburg.
People living in the area experienced increased rates of testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. DuPont was sued by more than 3,000 Mid-Ohio Valley residents, leading to it paying nearly $700 million in settlements.
Eric Engle of Parkersburg, chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action, said that the level of concern over PFAS remains high in the valley and that the greater scrutiny of the chemicals that followed the class-action lawsuit and the 2019 film “Dark Waters” about the PFAS case against DuPont in Parkersburg has led to a false sense of security.
“[W]e have to address this issue,” Engle said.