Three West Virginia communities are changing their water sources after the federal Environmental Protection Agency released Thursday a new national standard for C8, a chemical that for years contaminated the drinking water of Wood County communities and is linked to cancer, thyroid disease and dangerously high blood pressure in pregnant women.
The EPA’s move caused immediate action, as West Virginia regulators on Thursday advised Vienna residents not to drink or cook with their water, based on test results over the past couple of years.
“The Bureau for Public Health is working with the town of Vienna to implement appropriate precautions, which will include a ‘Do Not Drink’ advisory until additional testing and evaluation takes place,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health. “The Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety will assist those affected by the EPA’s advisory, and the state will assist in securing installation of new filters.
“Two other public water systems in West Virginia, located in Parkersburg and Martinsburg, were also affected by the new EPA thresholds. They have taken immediate action by using additional water sources to provide water.”
All three cities got their water through groundwater sources, or wells, said Walt Ivey, an environmental health official with the DHHR.
Parkersburg and Martinsburg both had additional wells with lower levels of contamination, so they were able to turn off the chemically contaminated sources and residents should see no changes in their water service, Ivey said.
The EPA’s health advisory set a level of 70 parts per trillion of C8 in drinking water, saying chemical levels below that standard are “not expected to result in adverse health effects over a lifetime of exposure.”
Baseline testing required by the EPA and done in 2014 and 2015 had found chemical levels below a previous provisional health advisory but above the new advisory, Ivey said.
C8, which also is known as perfluorooctanoate acid, or PFOA, was made and used at DuPont Co.’s Washington Works plant, south of Parkersburg, as a processing agent to make Teflon and other nonstick products, oil-resistant paper packaging and stain-resistant textiles.
A similar chemical, known as PFOS — perfluorooctane sulfonate, was found in Martinsburg’s water during the baseline testing, Ivey said.
PFOS is found in firefighting foam and often is used at military installations, like Martinsburg’s Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base.
The provisional health advisories for the chemicals, set in 2009, were 400 parts per trillion for PFOA and 200 parts per trillion for PFOS.
In 2002, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had settled on an acceptable level of 150,000 parts per trillion of C8, despite the fact that DuPont’s internal guidelines at the time set the acceptable level at 1,000 parts per trillion.
The testing, called the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule and required by the Safe Drinking Water Act, found no evidence of either chemical in Charleston’s water system, Ivey said.
Allison Adler, a DHHR spokeswoman, said the National Guard will supply water trucks and bottled water in Vienna.
Officials were working to provide activated carbon treatment to Vienna’s water system — but because of the nature of the system, that could be months, Ivey said.
Nothing has changed about any of the three cities’ water systems; it’s just the EPA’s advice on acceptable contamination levels that grew more stringent.
“The water system has been what it is over a long period of time,” said Drema Mace, director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department. “This is a change in the allowed levels.”
Mace said officials are working with Vienna-area restaurants to provide water sources. DuPont and other companies have agreed to a voluntary phase-out of the chemical, but researchers are still concerned about a growing list of possible health effects and about the chemical’s presence in consumer products, as well as continued pollution from waste disposal practices.
Environmental groups praised the EPA’s move but said it has been far too slow in coming and is still insufficient.
“Although it’s a long overdue step in the right direction, the guideline is still too high, as it allows unacceptable accumulation of PFOA to build up in the blood of people drinking it,” said Robert Bilott, a longtime lawyer for Parkersburg-area residents who had their water contaminated.
Bilott has been writing to the EPA and to the DEP since 2001 to try to focus their attention on the issue.
He said the most recent data that he’s seen show levels of the chemical in several Vienna wells to be over the new guideline.
“At least according to the EPA’s new guidance, folks there should be getting different water,” Bilott said.
The Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit that last month wrote to the EPA demanding action, said the new limits are welcome but fall short.
David Andrews and Bill Walker, two officials with the group, cited 2015 research from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Massachusetts that showed an “approximate” safe level for PFOA and PFOS is no more than 1 part per trillion, 70 times lower than the EPA’s level.
“In addition, the new advisory level is not a legally enforceable limit,” Andrews and Walker wrote. “[The] EPA has said it could be 2019 or beyond before the agency even decides whether to start the process of setting a legal limit.”
Another group, Keep Your Promises DuPont, called for the EPA to lower its standard to 1 part per trillion and for a legally enforceable standard, as opposed to an advisory one.
“My family, my friends and my neighbors across the mid-Ohio Valley are still drinking water contaminated with C8 at levels exceeding this guideline,” said Dr. Paul Brooks, of Keep Your Promises DuPont, specifically citing Vienna. “This is unacceptable and, given this new guideline, our water must be filtered immediately.”