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Virginia localities are working to limit PFAS chemical exposures

Ryan Smeltz collects samples in eastern Henrico
Henrico Department of Public Utilities
Ryan Smeltz, the monitoring and compliance division supervisor for the Department of Public Utilities, collects water samples in eastern Henrico.

PFAS can be found in firefighting foam, nonstick cookware, private wells and public waterways.

As local, state and federal governments race to understand the prevalence and public health effects of “forever chemicals” in drinking water, some localities have had to expand their work beyond public water systems.

Henrico County is one of them. The county got word in late 2021 that PFAS had been detected in both the Chickahominy River and further upstream in the White Oak Swamp watershed, near Richmond International Airport. That led to a six-month flurry of testing private wells — and dozens had detectable levels of the chemicals.

Now, county leaders say they’re trying to stay on top of the issue by monitoring the public water supply and offering free testing and filters for private well owners — all while participating in state studies and waiting on federal enforcement.

What are PFAS, and why do they matter?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances include thousands of unique chemical compounds that have been widely used in industrial and household products since the 1940s. Some well-known examples of products that use PFAS include firefighting foam, nonstick cookware and disposable plates.

People have taken to calling them “forever chemicals” because they persist for years without breaking down. Research shows they can also persist in human and animal bodies for years, leading to a buildup. The chemicals are known to be toxic, but researchers are still working to understand which are most dangerous, even at extremely low levels.

Animal studies and analysis of human populations with known PFAS exposure show that the chemicals may lead to birthing and fertility problems, developmental delays in children, increased risk of some cancers, hampered immune response and vaccine effectiveness and more.

Dwight Flammia, a public health toxicologist at the Virginia Department of Health, said the goal of Virginia’s public and environmental health agencies right now is to determine where PFAS chemicals are most concentrated. In other words, where people are likely to be ingesting them one way or another over an extended period of time.

“That goes back to the old adage of ‘it’s the dose that makes the poison,’” Flammia told VPM News.

That’s where the Environmental Protection Agency comes in. The federal agency released preliminary minimum contaminant levels, or MCLs, in March 2023. The MCLs are designed to be a binding benchmark for public water systems to meet, though they are not yet being enforced. They’re based on regulators’ best understanding of safe long-term exposure levels, balanced with cost and compliance concerns of public water systems.

EPA is proposing regulations on a narrow selection of the chemicals at varying levels. Two chemicals, PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), would be regulated at 4 parts per trillion. That’s about 4 nanograms, or 4 billionths of a gram, in a liter of water — almost incomprehensibly small.

Several others — including the chemicals PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), PFHxS (perfluorohexanesulfonic acid), PFBS (perfluorobutane sulfonate) and GenX — will be measured with a “hazard index” used to evaluate health risks of simultaneous exposure to several, similar chemicals.

EPA has also proposed maximum contaminant level goals. These MCLGs will not be enforceable but are encouraged for public water systems to meet. For PFOA and PFOS, the MCLG is zero.

Complicated as those levels are, they’ll only apply to public waterworks, leaving private well users unaccounted for. But according to Henrico Department of Public Works Director Bentley Chan, that’s not the case in the county.

Ryan Smeltz collects samples in eastern Henrico.
Henrico Department of Public Utilities
Henrico County is offering PFAS levels testing free of charge to residents with private wells.

Protecting private wells

After PFAS chemicals were detected in and downstream of Henrico, the county tested 259 private wells and discovered PFAS contamination in 30. Of those, only two exceeded the EPA’s guidance on minimum levels.

Chan says both of those wells have been fitted with whole house filters, removing the PFAS before the water ever gets inside the house. Three other well owners have opted to use filters, too — and the county wants to encourage more to get their water tested.

“What we've done is we built into our budget an ongoing testing program, free of charge,” Chan said

The county will also cover installation costs on necessary filtration systems to remove the chemicals.

“They aren't utility customers, but they are residents within the county,” Chan said.

He was one of several experts from Henrico DPU, the EPA, VDH and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality at an open house meeting at the Varina Area Library on Wednesday night, which he says is part of the county’s ongoing work to inform the public.

What are state and federal agencies doing?

The Virginia Water Commission, a panel of lawmakers, heard updates on PFAS monitoring and cleanup efforts earlier this month.

Dr. Tony Singh, deputy director of the VDH’s Office of Drinking Water, told the commission that most of the state’s PFAS studies began after the passage of two General Assembly bills in 2020. Those laws created a workgroup directing the commissioner of health to study the occurrence of the chemicals in public drinking water, resulting in a study that found some level of contamination in 15 out of 45 major public water systems

“We compared that data with the proposed EPA MCLs, and 11 of those were at or above those the proposed EPA levels,” Singh said.

Singh said a new study is underway now, with results expected to be published this October. That study will cover up to 400 smaller public water systems and won’t be the last of VDH’s work on the issue. At this point, according to Singh, he’s not sure when the work will end.

Virginia has over 2,800 public water systems.

DEQ maintains a PFAS testing dashboard that shows detections in waterworks, surface water, fish tissue and sediment. The region covered by Henrico’s tests and the downstream Chickahominy River watershed show high levels of surface-water detections.

One site adjacent to Richmond International Airport measured a total PFAS concentration of over 1,100 parts per trillion in 2021 (the last year for which data is available). Newport News Waterworks, which treats water from the Chickahominy River watershed, says its treated water has contamination levels near or below EPA’s proposed (and still unenforced) MCLs.

The EPA is also engaged in monitoring, and most recently found contamination in Colonial Heights, Langley Air Force Base, Norfolk and more. But the proposed MCLs, expected to be made official by the end of 2023, will start a clock for contaminated public drinking water systems to come into compliance — one that might be difficult to keep up with.

Chris Pomeroy, an attorney at environmental law firm AquaLaw, told lawmakers on the commission that the rules will usher in more monitoring, better public notice practices and requirements to come into compliance within three years of a violation.

“I will tell you, this is probably going to be the most expensive regulatory compliance exercise on the drinking water side that I will see in my career,” Pomeroy said.

The costs of monitoring and installing filter systems will be significant for water systems. Those costs may have to be covered by ratepayers, if not state or federal grants. They’ll be long-lasting too, as filters need to be replaced frequently to remain effective.

Later in the meeting Jamie Bain Hedges, Fairfax Water’s general manager, said the three-year compliance schedule will be difficult if not impossible to follow. Fairfax’s Occoquan Reservoir is currently above EPA’s proposed MCLs, she said, and Hedges expects the effort to filter all PFAS chemicals out could cost as much as $250 million.

“For us, realistically, a $250 million capital infrastructure project is, on an aggressive schedule, seven years,” she said, in order to ensure that the program they move forward with doesn’t violate any other state or federal environmental protections.

Pomeroy summed it up: “We have to start yesterday to still be late.”

As for Henrico, which has had no PFAS detections in its public water supply, Chan said the county will do the best it can to stay on top of new information, guidelines and regulations as they are released.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.