Researchers find harmful ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water across Georgia

ATLANTA — Your tap water could be filled with toxic chemicals linked to cancer and impaired immunity.

Researchers are drilling down to the most contaminated taps in metro Atlanta.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a new round of testing has revealed “forever chemicals” in the drinking water of “nearly a dozen systems across Georgia.”

The 11 water systems out of 52 tested so far that reported contamination include Clayton County, Austell and Covington.

The AJC’s Meris Lutz and Stephanie Lamm write that the so-called “forever chemicals” are also known as PFAS, the acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. “Widespread PFAS contamination of drinking water systems has been found in recent years around the United States — including in Georgia — since EPA issued health advisories based on new studies showing the chemicals are more toxic at lower levels than scientists previously thought,” Lutz and Lamm add.

New research shows forever chemicals, known as PFAS, are so prevalent that even treated water is at risk.

“I can’t drink my water. It got an odor to it,” one metro Atlanta resident told our partners at Channel 2 Action News in a recent interview. Like a lot of residents, she admitted she buys her water instead of using what comes out of her tap. “It scares me,” she added.

“Forever chemicals” are used in hundreds of products including stain and water-resistant fabrics, non-stick pots and pans, food containers and makeup.

“They are robust. They don’t easily degrade,” said Jack Huang, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Georgia. And right now, research being conducted in a University of Georgia lab in Griffin could save lives.

“These chemicals can be harmful to human health,” Huang said.

Scientists say even limited exposure to PFAS can lead to all sorts of ailments including cancer.

It’s such a concern, that President Joe Biden charged the EPA to regulate the amount of six out of thousands of known PFAS chemicals in our drinking water.

“There are over 10,000 of them now,” Huang said.

He is leading a team at UGA to find ways to get rid of PFAS using a federal grant.

“We’re hoping to boost our treatment technologies,” Huang said.

The team collected samples from wastewater treatment plants earlier this month and tested them for PFAS.

They used various methods to try and remove PFAS from the samples, including filters, chemicals, and electric shocks.

“We know it is a forever chemical. And so, we’re trying to figure out ways to get rid of it within the treatment plants,” said Gary Hawkins, an associate professor at UGA.

Eventually, treated wastewater ends up back in the environment, where we get our drinking water.

“And if the treatment technologies are not in the water treatment plant, it would be in that water treatment plant,” Hawkins said.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) found plenty of PFAS in our nation’s tap water. The USGS sent kits to volunteers across the country to test for 32 kinds of PFAS.

“We found PFAS in about 45% of tap water across the U.S.,” said Kelly Smalling, a research hydrologist with the USGS. The study showed PFAS levels trended higher in urban areas with high industrial activity.

But for many Georgia families, even a small amount is too much risk.

“I don’t use water from the tap. Never,” consumer Stephanie Amir said.

UGA scientists say they hope to have models in use at water treatment plants in the near future.

The project is set to wrap up in August of 2024. However, it could take years of more research to find the right solution to effectively filter or destroy the forever chemicals.

Researchers are still trying to determine the source of the PFAS found in Clayton County’s water. “A county with significant industry, Clayton is also home to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on its northern edge and Fort Gillem, a former U.S. Army logistics post,” Lutz and Lamm write. “The airport sits over the headwaters of the Flint River, one of Clayton’s water sources.”

Across the U.S., officials say pollution from PFAS has been traced back to “manufacturing plants, leaking landfills and airports and military sites that use special PFAS-laden fire-fighting foam,” Lutz and Lamm explain. Read more here.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution contributed to this story

Nicole Bennett

Nicole Bennett

CMG Digital Content Producer





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