With the federal government stepping up regulation of drinking water contamination, the city of Fort Worth will increase monitoring of cancer-causing “forever chemicals” in its water system. 

In March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first-ever national drinking water standard for six perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. They are part of a large, complex group of synthetic chemicals that have been used in consumer products around the world since the 1950s, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 

Most Americans have been exposed to PFAS through drinking water, food packaging, stain-resistant  fabrics and fire extinguishing foam, among other consumer products, according to the EPA

Because PFAS chemicals accumulate in the environment and people’s bodies rather than break down, exposure to high levels of PFAS has been linked to developmental delays in children, increased risk of some cancers, decreased fertility and reduced ability to fight infections, among other effects. 

Under the EPA’s proposed rules, public water utilities like Fort Worth’s water department will be required to monitor for six chemicals in the PFAS family. Water systems will be required to notify the public and reduce PFAS contamination if levels rise above the government’s proposed regulatory standards. 

What’s in the EPA’s new rules for PFAS?

The proposal, if finalized, would regulate two PFAS chemicals – PFOA and PFOS – individually. The new rules will regulate four other PFAS – PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals – as a mixture.

Under these rules, governments would need to reduce PFOA and PFOS in their water supply if they exceed 4 parts per trillion. One part per trillion is equal to one drop of impurity in 500,000 barrels of water, according to the city of Fort Worth.

For the other four chemicals, government water systems will calculate whether a combined mixture of the PFAS variants pose a potential risk.

Read more here.

Chris Harder, the city’s water director, said Fort Worth isn’t waiting for the rule to be finalized before taking action on PFAS contamination. The city is bringing new equipment online in the next few months that will improve Fort Worth’s capacity to consistently monitor for PFAS chemicals, he said. 

Fort Worth will initiate monthly testing starting in July, in addition to federally mandated testing that began in January. City staff will also implement a sampling plan for wastewater to monitor how industrial sites are discharging PFAS chemicals into the waste collection system, according to the city’s website

The cost of increased testing is pocket change compared to the high cost of removing PFAS chemicals from drinking water, Harder said. 

Water utilities across the country will be competing for federal dollars to fund PFAS treatment options. The EPA made $2 billion available to small and disadvantaged communities earlier this year, and another $10 billion is expected to be distributed to address contaminants like PFAS. 

“That’s a drop in the bucket,” Harder said. “If you are having thousands of utilities doing treatment projects, those are not going to be just $2 billion but significantly, significantly more expensive than that. Without any other funding mechanism, those costs get transferred to the ratepayer.” 

City staff will aggressively pursue any grant money or low-interest loans available to fund what Harder calls “treatability studies.” These studies would explore the design and engineering processes necessary to implement any of the three treatment options provided by the EPA, including carbon absorption, reverse osmosis and ion exchange. 

Harder’s staff would then determine which solution is most cost-effective for the city. 

“All these options are expensive, but for the size of our utility, carbon absorption may be the most cost effective,” Harder said. “There’s a lot of complexity and cost associated with different mitigation techniques when it comes to treatment that we’ll be investigating.” 

Chris Harder, center, talks to members of the Water District Accountability Project during an April 2022 tour of the planned site for the west side sewage treatment plant near Mary’s Creek. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

Where does Fort Worth stand on PFAS in drinking water? 

The proposal comes as Fort Worth conducts mandatory testing for “forever chemicals” for the first time since 2014, when the EPA required the city to test for contaminants not covered by the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Between January 2023 and January 2024, the city’s water department will submit four rounds of treated water samples from each of Fort Worth’s water treatment plants to a third-party lab. The lab will test for 29 different PFAS chemicals and lithium. 

The city’s first round of results was published in late May. Out of 29 PFAS variants, seven chemicals were detected in Fort Worth’s water system. 

The average amount of two PFAS chemicals – PFOS and PFOA – found in Fort Worth’s lab samples would meet the EPA’s proposed standards, which limit those chemicals to 4 parts per trillion. While not yet in effect, the EPA’s new rules are expected to be finalized by the end of 2023. 

The city of Fort Worth reported seven detections of PFAS chemicals in its first round of testing, which started in January 2023. (Courtesy | City of Fort Worth)

In 2014, when the city tested for six PFAS chemicals, Fort Worth did not report any detections of contaminants. But the detection levels were much higher then. 

Back then, the city’s samples reported a detection of PFAS chemicals only if the number was above 40 parts per trillion – 10 times the level now deemed safe by the EPA. 

“The analytical capabilities have improved to the point we can detect at lower limits now, but we don’t really have the data to know what that means,” said Mary Gugliuzza, a water department spokesperson. 

Unsafe levels of PFAS chemicals – higher than the EPA’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion – were also detected in at least one private drinking water well near Fort Worth’s Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in 2020. Military bases are hot spots for contamination because of the use of chemical-laden firefighting foam for training exercises.

National study on PFAS contamination includes Fort Worth

Dr. Katie Pelch, a scientist focused on chemical contamination for the Natural Resources Defense Council, also sought to draw attention to potential PFAS contamination in Fort Worth through a peer-reviewed study published in April. 

Pelch previously lived in Fort Worth while working as a professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Her home’s tap water was one of 44 samples tested by scientists seeking to learn more about the type of contamination present in 16 states, including areas that have not been the focus of public outcry or legal action. 

“We really wanted to know: What else is there? What are we not regulating?” Pelch said. “We need to understand what the baseline level of contamination is to understand the benefits as well of cleaning up the water.” 

The sample found 20.6 parts per trillion of total PFAS contaminants in the city’s tap water. Most importantly, Pelch said, the levels of the specific chemical PFOS would exceed the federal government’s proposed regulations of 4 parts per trillion. 

The city of Fort Worth is collecting treated water samples from its five water treatment plants, including the Westside Water Treatment Plant on Old Weatherford Road in Aledo. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

The single sample is not an “apples to apples” comparison to Fort Worth’s quarterly testing, said Gugliuzza, the city spokesperson.

“We don’t know how that sample was taken. We don’t know any kind of details about it,” Gugliuzza said.  

Pelch acknowledges that the study was small and intended to be a pilot for future studies of PFAS contamination. As more data is published from the EPA’s national monitoring program, government agencies will have a better sense of where Fort Worth stands in comparison to other cities, Pelch said.

She and the Natural Resources Defense Council are encouraging water providers to think about their strategies for eliminating PFAS contamination now rather than later. Installing treatment for PFAS will also remove other contaminants in the process, Pelch said. 

“There can be a real net benefit to updating our drinking water systems,” Pelch said. “There is a cost associated with it. But there’s also a largely unquantified cost associated with the health harms from drinking unsafe water.” 

Harder’s team anticipates more federal regulations on PFAS in other forms, including wastewater and biosolids programs that turn sewage sludge into fertilizer. Concerns over PFAS are influencing the city’s decisions on its new westside sewage treatment facility, which is currently in the design phase. 

The city remains confident in its position to address the oncoming rules, Harder said. 

“When you have a regulatory uncertainty, it does make design decisions pretty complicated,” Harder said. “We want to make wise and prudent decisions. And the best way we can do that is be completely on top of the rulemaking.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

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Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. Her coverage is made possible by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman...