These are challenges the Bay Area faces in eliminating 'forever chemicals' in water, experts say

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion KGO logo
Wednesday, April 12, 2023
'Forever chemicals' pose challenges in Bay Area water, experts say
These are challenges the Bay Area faces in eliminating 'forever chemicals' in our water, according to local experts.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Scientist Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D. and her colleagues at the San Francisco Estuary Institute have spent more than a decade tracking chemicals known as PFAS, which have been linked to a variety of environmental problems.

"So they can harm a lot of different organ systems in the body. They can harm the kidneys, the liver, our blood, our reproductive and immune function. So, there's a lot of different things that can go wrong in the human body when we're exposed to PFAS," Sutton said.

PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals," are now in the crosshairs since the Environmental Protection Agency proposed tight new standards to protect the nation's drinking water. But Sutton says the situation here in Bay Area is different than some other parts of the country, where the pollution is still driven by heavy manufacturing.

RELATED: EPA to limit toxic 'forever chemicals' in drinking water, says this could prevent illnesses

The EPA proposed a plan to limit "forever chemicals" in drinking water, a chemical linked to a broad range of health issues.

Teams from the Estuary Institutes have used techniques like sampling storm runoff into San Francisco Bay to learn more. The goal is to identify which chemicals are present in our environment and where they're coming from.

"And we look at PFAS in the water in the sediment, and in all kinds of Bay wildlife. And we're concerned there to see the levels and the build-up in the bay," she says.

And here in the Bay Area common sources typically range from personal products and cleaning agents, to clothing, carpeting and more. And once they're washed into the Bay, the chemicals can potentially enter the marine food chain, according to Andria Ventura with the environmental group Clean Water Action.

RELATED: Report: 74 California water systems contaminated, 7.5 million potentially exposed to toxic chemicals

Chemicals used for carpets and anti-stain products have been found in water sources for 7.5 million people in California, detailing the extent of the problem as state regulators work to develop safety levels for the contaminants that have been linked to cancer.

"And the more predatory, the bigger or the older the species, the more of these contaminants they can collect up that food chain, because they're eating the next guy down and the next guy down and the next guy down and collecting everybody's contamination. And we've seen this with things like mercury. We expect this with PFAS chemicals," Ventura said.

Researchers say they're also working to better understand how PFAS pollutants may be entering drains and wastewater systems and at what volumes. But they believe the most efficient way to control the chemicals is with manufacturers.

"We have a lot of great studies on wastewater and stormwater as pathways for PFAS and other contaminants. But wastewater and stormwater agencies aren't responsible for the presence of these contaminants, and they can't just treat them away. So we really need to address products and manufacturing, Sutton believes.

It is a campaign that may accelerate as the EPA develops new tighter standards to safeguard America's drinking water and eventually, the broader environment.

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