It’s raining ‘forever chemicals’ in Cleveland. What’s being done to make Ohio water safe?

By: - June 25, 2021 12:15 am

Drinking water photo from the Ohio Governor’s Office.

In April of this year, scientists decided to measure the healthiness of the rainwater falling over the Midwest. One of the places they measured was Cleveland, Ohio.

The rain that fell on Cleveland this spring contained a surprisingly high amount of toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, according to scientists at the Integrated Atmospheric Deposition Network, a long-term Great Lakes monitoring program jointly funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Canada. Besides Cleveland, the other Great Lakes’ sites measured were Chicago, Sturgeon Point, N.Y., Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula and Eagle Harbor in the Upper Peninsula.

“You can actually say it’s raining PFAS at this point,” said Marta Venier, an environmental chemist at Indiana University. “[The PFAS’] accumulate. Once they are out there, they really stay out there. All of this is to say it’s not an immediate concern for a person, but it is a concern long-term for the environment because they keep raining out.”

What are PFASs? And are they dangerous?

According the National Institute of Environmental health Sciences, Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS),are a large, complex, and ever-expanding group of manufactured chemicals that are widely used to make various types of everyday products. For example, they keep food from sticking to cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and create firefighting foam that is more effective. PFAS are used in industries such as aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, and military.”

They help preserve most cosmetics. And fast-food packaging. To that end, often part of the machinery used in food processing.

What of health risks from the PFASs? They have been around since the 1940s, and tend to stay around. Some studies have shown that there are potential adverse health impacts associated with PFAS exposure, including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer. But none have been found to have any certainty.

According to the Environmental Working Group, as of January 2021, 2,337 locations in 49 states are known to have PFAS contamination. PFAS chemicals have been found in drinking water in Ohio communities Cleveland Heights and Struthers, and on military bases Camp Ravenna and Wright Patterson Air Force Base. 

Pointing out the problem of PFAS being in Ohio drinking water, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown on Wednesday called for U.S. Senate action on legislation that would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate them hazardous substances.

“Are we on the side of Ohioans or are our elected officials on the side of the chemical companies?” Brown said last year. “Our parents shouldn’t have to worry about their children’s health every time they turn on the faucet.”

Dr. Susan Pinney of the University of Cincinnati has told the U.S. Congress that PFAS chemicals have been linked to health problems including cancer, kidney damage, thyroid difficulties and changes in reproductive hormones that disrupt puberty for girls.

“With any public health problem, the first step is assessment, and we really don’t have an assessment of the extent of exposure to PFAS in drinking water,” said Pinney. “That’s why the approval of the [federal legislation] is so important, because it would require a more universal assessment throughout the United States.”

Ohio has started to do more testing on PFASs.

“We must fully evaluate the prevalence of PFAS in Ohio’s drinking water to protect public health and the state’s natural resources,” Gov. Mike DeWine said in December of 2019. “This plan is the first step in learning if the chemicals have a widespread presence.”

On April 13, 2021, U.S. House members introduced legislation that requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take several significant PFAS regulatory actions. None are radical banning of various uses of PFAS, but it does nonetheless add an element of significant pressure on the EPA and the Biden administration to accelerate PFAS regulations.

The private market, however, is seeing that some action on getting rid of some PFAS chemicals might be on their shoulders. The Columbus, Ohio-based fast-food chain Wendy’s said in their 2020 “Corporate Responsibility Report” that “We continue to set additional incremental goals and make progress … We anticipate full elimination of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly called PFAS, from consumer-facing packaging in the U.S. and Canada by the end of 2021.”

What may move action even further by the State of Ohio and the Environmental Protection Agency, is the issue of PFAS contamination from Wright Patterson Air Force Base in the Dayton area.

“In my discussions with Mayor (Nan) Whaley of Dayton,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine wrote to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in August of last year, “she has expressed great concern over the potential impact to millions of Ohioans that depend on water from the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer as a source of safe drinking water if we do not work together with a greater sense of urgency and more definitive action to address PFAS contamination.”

In May of this year, the city of Dayton formally filed a contamination lawsuit against Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of Defense, seeking damages of up to $300 million over PFAS chemicals from the air force base leaking into the city’s drinking water. That lawsuit may lead to further research and legislation.

This is not just one government agency suing another. They involves the makers of firefighting foam to shoulder the cost of cleaning up chemicals contaminating the city’s water supply. Defendants named in the suit are 3M Company, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., Buckeye Fire Equipment Company, Chemguard Inc., Tyco Fire Products L.P., and National Foam Inc.

“We want the people who make messes to pay to clean it up,” Mayor Whaley said. “It’s the same idea here. These guys knew what they were creating was harmful to the community and harmful to the water supply. For 40 years they did nothing. We want them to pay to clean it up.”



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Daniel McGraw
Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a book author and freelance journalist in Lakewood, OH. He has written for The Bulwark, POLITICO, Next City, Daily Beast, and many others. Follow him @danmcgraw1.