Local News

PFAS: Chemicals of Emerging Concern

by Ahmad Zahra, Fullerton Council Member & Orange County Water District Representative

Nothing is more important than clean water. We wash our produce, bathe our kids and brush our teeth every day with what comes out of the tap.

Our water served here in Fullerton is tested thousands of times for contaminants each year in order to deliver some of the cleanest drinking water in the world. But today in Orange County and across the country, water agencies are faced with a challenge due to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS. This group of synthetic chemicals has been manufactured and used in many everyday consumer products since the 1940s and has found its way into local groundwater supplies, including our own. Only in recent years have the methods for their detection been created and refined. Of the PFAS group, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) have become chemicals of emerging concern to the public’s health, and have made headlines this year, including being the subject of the Hollywood movie “Dark Waters” and the 2018 Netflix documentary “The Devil We Know”.

Water is just one of many ways that people come in contact with these substances. Food and dust are also considered potentially significant sources. These chemicals are used in manufacturing because they repel heat, water and oil, and they have been used for decades in hundreds of industrial applications and consumer products such as firefighting foam, furniture fabrics, food packaging and service containers, clothing, and other water, grease or stain resistant materials. PFAS have been detected widely both in the environment and in blood samples of the general U.S. population. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also detected PFAS chemicals in the U.S. food supply.

While Orange County’s groundwater levels of both PFOA and PFOS are very low compared to other parts of the country where manufacturers or users have discharged them directly into the environment, it’s nonetheless something that is being taken very seriously. The Orange County Water District (OCWD) has taken a leading role in addressing this issue. Its Philip L. Anthony Water Quality Laboratory became the first public agency laboratory in California to achieve state certification to analyze for PFAS in drinking water. And, OCWD recently announced the launch of the nation’s largest water treatment pilot program for PFAS and will test various methods for treating PFAS, specific to each retail water agency in the county, including Fullerton, which relies on groundwater for 77% of its supply.

OCWD has been proactively working with federal, state and local agencies to tackle this issue, especially as state and federal standards continue to change and we gain more understanding of the issue. In April 2019, California’s Division of Drinking Water (DDW) sent monitoring orders to more than 200 public water sys- tems across the state to test for PFOA and PFOS, including 12 in OCWD’s service area with some in Fullerton, selected on the basis of proximity to either landfills, municipal airports or past detections of PFAS in wells.

The State of California’s current Response Level (RL) for PFOA and PFOS – the level at which the state recommends, but does not enforce, that an agency stop serving water – has been 70 parts per trillion (ppt), consistent with the federal EPA’s Lifetime Health Advisory. The proposed state Notification Level (health-based advisory level where water providers must inform public of health concerns associated with exposure to a contaminant) has been set at 5.1ppt for PFOA and 6.5ppt for PFOS. The proposed response level is 10ppt for PFOA and 40ppt for PFOS. The final level has not yet been announced by the state, but these levels could potentially shutting down 71 wells in OCWD’s service area, including several in Fullerton. 

Fullerton and other cities in Orange County have been testing for PFAS throughout 2019 in preparation to meet new state and federal guidelines, while simultaneously exploring long-term treatment solutions and discontinuing use of water that exceeds California’s new RL. All of this does come with a price tag. The cost of pilot tests, treatment, imported water supplies and other PFAS-related actions is substantial. As such, OCWD’s board recently approved a new policy that would assist retail agencies financially with capital for treatment plants and future operational costs. However, until the treatment plants are built, agencies have to grapple with the higher cost of imported water to replace the loss of groundwater. Fullerton is in the process of assess- ing the best financial approach to this unexpected large expense. While water agencies played no role in PFAS entering our water supplies, OCWD, Fullerton, and other agencies are taking important steps to reduce and remove them from our water.

The nation is just beginning to understand the gravity of the PFAS problem. Fullerton is joining water agencies in advocating that both the state and the federal governments set enforceable maximum contaminant levels for both PFOA and PFOS in order to protect public health and help provide long-term financial remedies. In the meantime, OCWD, Fullerton and other affected water agencies are considering the state’s recommended levels as if they were enforceable mandates. It is a costly investment but one we all feel is important. Clean, reliable drinking water is always the highest priority.

For more information on PFAS or other water related matters please contact me at: AhmadZ@cityoffullerton.com or visit www.ocwd.com. 

This issue will be discussed at the Feb 5 OCWD meeting at 5:30pm.

Public Meeting On PFAS in Our Water

Join Councilmember Ahmad Zahra, Fullerton’s OCWD representative board- member, and guests to “GET THE FACTS about PFAS,” new state and federal regulations, local clean up efforts and its cost, and more on Saturday, February 8 at 10am at the Fullerton Community Center. 340 W. Commonwealth Ave.

PFAS, Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl sub- stances, are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been manufactured and used in many everyday consumer products since the 1940s. They have been detected in local groundwater supplies across the country, including our own in Orange County, and have become chemicals of emerging concern to the public’s health. Guest Speakers include Mike Markus, OCWD General Manager, Meg McWade, City of Fullerton Public Works Director, and Adan Ortega, Metropolitan Water District Board Member.

For more information on PFAS or other water related matters please contact me at: AhmadZ@cityoffullerton.com or visit http://www.ocwd.com. 

This issue will be discussed at the Feb 5 OCWD meeting at 5:30pm.

For more information on PFAS visit www.ewg.org (the non-profit Environmental Working Group).