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Dangerous ‘forever chemicals’ found in drinking water of thousands of Illinois residents

More than 100 community drinking water sources in the Chicago suburbs and around the state show contamination from harmful PFAS that can pose serious health threats, records show.

John Gulledge, the chief water plant operator of the City of Lake Forest, outside the Lake Forest Water Treatment Plant in Lake Forest. Trace amounts of PFAS chemicals were found in the city’s drinking water.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

More than 100 drinking water systems across Illinois, including some in the Chicago area, have tested positive for measurable levels of harmful contaminants known as “forever chemicals” that are linked to cancer, liver damage, high blood pressure and other health threats.

In the Chicago area, Lake Forest, Waukegan, North Chicago, South Elgin and Crest Hill near Joliet are among the water systems that are showing readings of a class of chemicals known as PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. In most cases, the levels are very low though the widespread presence is a concern, environmental and health advocates say.

“These findings confirm our fears that drinking water is a source of PFAS exposure for thousands of Illinois residents,” said Sonya Lunder, a Sierra Club toxics expert who has worked on the issue nationally. “The state needs to urgently address these harmful exposures.”

While state officials say most of these levels are trace amounts, every water system manager showing even small sources is required to regularly test and monitor the levels while Illinois determines safe limits for the chemicals, said Sonjay Sofat, who heads the water bureau for Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. His agency, which is doing the testing as a step toward determining rules on controlling the contamination, ideally will finish testing by the end of October, he said.

PFAS chemicals have been around for decades and are ubiquitous, used in stain-resistant clothing, waterproof products, non-stick pans, polishes, waxes and fire-fighting foam (above).
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Although local officials can’t pinpoint exactly where the contamination is entering their water systems, PFAS chemicals have been around for decades and are ubiquitous, used in stain-resistant clothing, waterproof products, non-stick pans, polishes, waxes and fire-fighting foam.

It’s a complex problem that potentially can cost some local water departments millions of dollars to correct to protect public health. The chemicals are so prevalent that federal officials say most people have some level of them in their bodies. Nicknamed “forever chemicals,” they don’t break down and remain an environmental and human health threat indefinitely.

“If they’re dropped into a volcano, they will fall apart. Otherwise, they are very stable,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Washington-based advocacy organization Environmental Working Group. “That’s why we need to keep testing water [and] cleaning up contamination.”

Chemicals not fully understood

Research continues on the class of chemicals as scientists admit they still don’t have a full grasp of the danger. Human testing suggests the chemicals may decrease infant birth weights, inhibit vaccine response in children, increase the risk of kidney or testicular cancer, lead to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels and cause liver damage. Animal testing found the chemicals can cause birth defects and developmental issues.

Tests of the water in some Chicago-area water systems, including Lake Forest and Waukegan, found the chemical at just above 2 parts per trillion, the level the Illinois EPA says needs monitoring. Much higher levels are seen outside Chicago and the collar counties, including in Winnebago County where Rockford is the county seat.

The state’s findings are the first time Illinois has examined the prevalence of the contaminants. It’s a first step in writing guidelines for safe levels of the chemicals in water. Illinois lags other Midwest states, including Michigan which determined it had high levels of PFAS contamination statewide only after extensive testing. Indeed, there was little evidence in the past that PFAS was so abundant in drinking water in Illinois.

“That’s what triggers the action. If the state’s not looking for it, then it seems like no issue,” said Jeremy Orr, a senior attorney with Natural Resource Defense Council in Chicago.

Illinois EPA set the low 2 parts per trillion measure to get a broad understanding of the chemicals’ presence as officials try to determine a standard for safe drinking water. There is no agreement nationally on what level of PFAS is safe. Last year, Michigan set a limit of 8 parts per trillion on one often-detected chemical, known as PFOA. Conversely, the U.S. EPA has recommended a health advisory if water tests at 70 parts per trillion.

Some Rockford residents forced to drink bottled water

In some cases, Illinois water systems are showing extremely high levels of the chemical, forcing immediate actions.

In Rockford, a trailer park community water system serving more than 200 people had to be shut down earlier this year because the contamination levels were more than double the national EPA advisory level. Residents are drinking bottled water until the park can be connected to the Rockford water system.

Rockford itself is home to three hazardous waste sites in various stages of cleanup under the federal government’s Superfund program, including one close to the trailer park. In Winnebago County, groundwater drawn from wells is the primary source of drinking water.

“They should stop those companies who are producing the chemicals,” said Raksha Soneji, the trailer park’s manager. “It’s frustrating.”

Said Orr: “It’s very feasible they’ve been drinking this water and that community has been contaminated for a very long time.”

Illinois and other states are discovering only after widespread testing that drinking water contains PFAS chemicals, said Jeremy Orr, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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Dr. Sandra Martell, the public health administrator for Winnebago County, said the discovery at the trailer park led officials to contact private well owners in the area to test their water. At least two property owners in the area tested at high levels and they are now addressing the problem, she said.

Another system serving more than 35,000 people south of Rockford, North Park Public Water District, found high levels in one backup well. The well, which officials say has not been used since 2013, has been sealed.

Chicago clear for now

After state testing, Chicago’s water system showed no detectable amounts. However, a decade ago, Chicago’s water showed small amounts of PFAS. In a statement to the Sun-Times, water department officials blamed the earlier readings on less sophisticated testing.

“The extremely low levels detected early on would be considered within the margin of error today,” the statement said.

Some area suburbs, including Evanston, Wilmette and Winnetka have yet to report results, according to the latest state data. In all, more than 1,000 water systems have been tested and there are still several hundred more to test, according to the Illinois EPA.

The state EPA also is asking water departments to make the PFAS readings public, though some water managers say they may only put those results up on an existing state website that tracks drinking water quality.

Among the water system managers contacted by the Sun-Times, none of them could identify the culprit causing the contamination.

Environmental Working Group, which has been studying the contamination issue for years, identifies more than 1,700 potential sources across Illinois, mostly industrial sites but also sewage treatment facilities and landfills.

Illinois lawmakers took a step toward addressing part of the problem by passing a bill that phases out firefighting foam containing PFAS. That bill, the result of two years of negotiations between Illinois fire chiefs and environmentalists, was sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker at the end of June along with a separate bill that bans incineration of the foam.

The test results have already stirred federal lawsuits. Moline and South Elgin are each suing the companies who have made the products, including 3M Co. and DuPont. The same group of lawyers, multiple firms across the country bringing multiple suits, have also been retained by Crest Hill and East Alton. Separately, Galesburg, in western Illinois, also is suing the companies. The lawsuits, which are being filed across the country, are being consolidated in a South Carolina federal court.

Gulledge, the water plant chief in Lake Forest, is worried about the costs of removing PFAS, even low levels like the trace amounts found in his city’s water supply.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Cleanup costs not cheap

The lawsuits aim to defer what’s potentially very expensive fixes to water systems.

“We don’t have to have this burden borne by our taxpayers,” said former Crest Hill City Administrator Heather McGuire. “We want to make sure this gets corrected.”

Some states, including Michigan, also have sued the manufacturers. A DuPont spokesman said the complaints have no merit and will be defended “vigorously.” A 3M spokesman said the company wants to work with communities on a “collaborative path forward.”

That potential cleanup bill is concerning to a number of municipal water officials.

“It costs a lot to do plant improvements,” said John Gulledge, water plant chief at Lake Forest. “Our level is still low. I’m interested to see what kinds of guidelines the state would give for removal.”

Like every other water system official interviewed, Gulledge said he had no idea where the contamination may have occurred.

“It’s a bit of a new adventure,” he said.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.