Sediment gathers at Lake Montebello, which can sometimes emit
an unpleasant smell. Several water officials are worried about
levels, which can dip low. Photo credit/Rona Kobell

With little federal guidance regarding “forever chemicals” in drinking water, a new report from the Abell Foundation calls for local, state and federal action to protect water supplies in Baltimore, Maryland and across the country.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a class of nearly 5,000 chemicals found in common household items, such as food wrappings, waterproofing sprays, fire retardants, carpeting and upholstery.

These “forever chemicals” do not break down in the environment, groundwater or drinking water supplies, and ingesting them can cause low birth rates, cancer, miscarriages, and thyroid problems.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 set a “voluntary, non-binding” health advisory of less than 70 parts per trillion of PFAS in drinking water, there are no mandatory limits, according to the Abell report.

This means jurisdictions are not federally required to test for these chemicals in their water systems.

Scientists believe many people have low levels of PFAS in their bloodstream, particularly those who use household products containing the chemicals. But the presence of PFAS in waterways and drinking water is cause for greater concern, the report said.

In Lapeer, Mich., the small town’s wastewater plant offered its sewage sludge to farmers to use on their fields. Testing later revealed high levels of PFAS in the sludge, and the city now spends about $3 million per year to treat the sludge elsewhere to be deposited in a landfill, according to the report.

In Maryland, half of the sludge produced in the state winds up on agriculture fields, particularly on the Eastern Shore.

The report quotes former Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Robert Summers, who explained that PFAS are difficult to remove once they get into the water supply.

“PFAS in our water supply from streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and groundwater… move through our sewage treatment plants back into the water, both in the treated water that is discharged back to the streams and rivers that are used for water supply downstream, and in the sludge that is removed from the sewage by treatment, spread on land and leaches back into the groundwater,” Summers said.

Without federal regulations, creating and enforcing limits are left up to states.

“This system is especially problematic because water doesn’t respect political boundaries,” the report’s authors wrote.

Even if Maryland developed its own restrictions on chemicals, it could still feel the effects from other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the report said.

Eight states have already established their own guidelines for PFAS in drinking water and groundwater: North Carolina, Michigan, Delaware, Vermont, Maine, Minnesota, Texas and New Jersey, according to the report.

President Biden and Congress are working to address PFAS. But the report’s authors acknowledge that federal regulations may result in industries simply trading one regulated chemical for another chemical that has been changed slightly to work around that regulation.

“Right now, what we’re doing is chemical by chemical, trying to regulate, which is definitely not feasible,” said Carsten Prasse, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, in the report. “There are, what, 83,000 chemicals in use, so it’s impossible to go through them one by one, and the chemists are very creative in coming up with new ones constantly.”

Instead of regulating individual chemicals, Prasse recommends analyzing the effects of chemical compounds on the environment and implementing regulations based on those findings.

The tri-state Chesapeake Bay Commission, advising legislatures in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, is currently looking into steps regarding PFAS.

In 2020, the Maryland General Assembly banned the use of PFAS during firefighter training exercises, but allowed their use in fighting actual fires. An effort at a complete ban failed during the 2021 Assembly session.

Maryland could regulate PFAS with a maximum containment level, an enforceable threshold for drinking water. That will require one year of monitoring data. The Maryland Department of the Environment in 2020 requested 137 of the state’s “most vulnerable” drinking water treatment systems to sample for PFAS, which will contribute to an assessment and analysis by the department to draft that threshold level.

Deborah Pitts, who helps oversee Baltimore City’s water system for the Department of Public Works, said in the report that state department tested the city’s water for PFAS twice, with the first test’s results having PFAS levels below detection, and the second test results pending.

The city is waiting for state and federal guidance on testing PFAS in drinking water, to ensure that “we can compare apples to apples,” said Kim Grove, DPW’s head of compliance and research, in the report.

Yosef Kebede, acting chief of DPW’s bureau of water and wastewater, said in the report that DPW has a sludge-handling contract with Synagro Co., which uses the sludge to make pellets for agricultural use. Synagro does not test the pellets for PFAS, Kebede said.

The report’s authors said local, state and federal officials cannot delay action.

“There is plenty of work to be done. We should not wait until a crisis like Lapeer’s or Flint’s to show us flaws in our system. We should be proactive to safeguard the health of all residents in the region,” they wrote.

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at