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Is PFAS in your water? Tennessee is promising answers soon on cancer-linked chemicals

More than 200 million Americans are estimated to be drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
Caroline Eggers
More than 200 million Americans are estimated to be drinking water contaminated with PFAS.

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a federal standard to limit “forever chemicals” in drinking water, and Tennessee may soon find out just how prevalent they are.

Per- and poly-fluoroakyl substances, called PFAS, are a group of more than 12,000 chemicals that don’t break down in the environment. That’s by design – these chemicals repel water and oil and are applied to everything from food packaging and cosmetics to stain-resistant furniture and toilet paper.

The threat is not new. The first PFAS was invented in the 1930s, and the federal government was alerted about its harms in the 1990s.

Today, nearly 30,000 companies are using these chemicals, putting them into rivers, landfills and the air, according to a review of government data by the Environmental Working Group.

Yet EPA’s proposal does not stop the companies from causing pollution.

“While it’s good news … polluters can keep putting PFAS into our drinking water supplies while water utilities are taking them out,” Scott Faber, of the Environmental Working Group, wrote in a recent editorial.

TDEC is sampling water across Tennessee

About 2 out of 3 Americans are likely exposed to PFAS in their drinking water. Virtually all people are exposed to PFAS through everyday products like nonstick cookware and clothes.

Tennessee has limited data on PFAS. In 2021, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation initiated a statewide study on PFAS in drinking water sources and expects to have the first sampling results next month. Results will be posted on TDEC’s PFAS page.

“Raw water samples are being collected from roughly 1,500 different locations, including surface water and groundwater. The sampling locations are based on where public water systems source their drinking water from,” TDEC’s Kim Schofinski said in a statement.

PFAS has been confirmed at five military bases in Tennessee, including the Air National Guard base in Nashville. Military sites are often located near marginalized communities with limited financial resources, an environmentalist recently wrotein the Tennessee Lookout.

In Nashville, the latest drinking water testing by Metro Water Services showed no reportable levels of the six types of PFAS that EPA is planning to regulate.

The federal agency considers reverse osmosis one of the most effective ways to purify water, but public water utilities do not use this technology because it is more expensive than conventional methods. Metro Water Services is using activated carbon technologies to clean water.

Outside the tap, forever chemicals are certainly still around town.

Last year, the Sierra Club reported that PFAS was in a fertilizer from a local company, called Music City Gold, made from Nashville’s sewage.

Caroline Eggers covers environmental issues with a focus on equity for WPLN News through Report for America, a national service program that supports journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Before joining the station, she spent several years covering water quality issues, biodiversity, climate change and Mammoth Cave National Park for newsrooms in the South. Her reporting on homelessness and a runoff-related “fish kill” for the Bowling Green Daily News earned her 2020 Kentucky Press Association awards in the general news and extended coverage categories, respectively. Beyond deadlines, she is frequently dancing, playing piano and photographing wildlife and her poodle, Princess. She graduated from Emory University with majors in journalism and creative writing.
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