CLEVELAND, Ohio — At least four Northeast Ohio electroplating companies are dumping an unregulated but potentially dangerous, chemical into their sewers — and eventually untreated into Lake Erie, environmental officials said.
It’s legal, but it’s alarming, U.S. EPA officials said.
That’s because those four Cleveland plating plants — and seven others in Chicago scrutinized by the agency in 2008 — might be only the toxic tip of a much larger problem.
EPA officials say dozens of metal-plating companies here and maybe thousands nationwide dispose of unregulated perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, into sewer systems each year.
“More likely than not, this is widespread — even if a study of only 11 plants is technically considered statistically insignificant,” said Kimberly Harris, a scientist with the U.S. EPA’s Chicago office, which conducted the study (pdf). “But there’s still a lot we don’t know — such as what other sources PFCs might be coming from.”
EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has already announced that the agency will start looking at stronger regulations of PFCs as one among several new and existing “chemicals of concern,” Harris said.
Electroplaters caught between air regulation, new water concern
Officials in the plating industry, however, have argued that many companies are in an environmental double bind because they are only using PFCs as a method to suppress fumes during the electroplating process as a way to meet air pollution laws.
“I don’t use them at my plant, but I know that some guys face the decision of spending a couple hundred thousand dollars for a fumes scrubber or to use products that suppress the fumes much less expensively,” said Ken Roth, owner of Duray Plating in Cleveland and a board member at the Ohio Association of Metal Finishers.”And we all want to do the right thing to. Our organization is working with the EPA on this.”
EPA officials acknowledged the tension between the air pollution laws and water safety concerns.
“It’s true that one solution to an environmental problem — air pollution — might be causing another environmental problem,” Harris said. “But we’ve also forwarded our study results to the air pollution division as well to try to address this.”
Industry leaders are also already working with the EPA to come up with alternate technologies or inert chemicals to suppress the fumes, she said.
No testing done for PFCs in Cleveland water
But the EPA’s more immediate concern is whether PFCs are in our water.
That’s because local sewer plants are neither required nor equipped to remove the chemicals from wastewater — and neither they nor Cleveland’s water division test for PFCs, which have been linked to cancer and liver disease in humans.
That could mean untold amounts of the compounds are passing through sewage plants and into rivers, streams and lakes at levels hundreds or thousands of times greater than what health authorities consider safe.
“This compound doesn’t stick to soil and it’s most dangerous in water supplies,” said Bob Fry, chief of the health assessment division at the Ohio Department of Health.
Nine of the 11 Cleveland and Chicago facilities tested by the EPA in June 2008 had PFC levels well above the federal provisional health advisory of 200 parts per trillion for drinking water, the study said.
PFC levels at one unidentified Cleveland company, in fact, registered at 54,000 parts per trillion in a wastewater sample. That’s 270 times more than the health advisory limit and tens of thousands of times higher than the background amount in water as it entered the factory, the study showed.
Precise PFC numbers from near other Cleveland area electroplating companies or at the outfall from the city’s three Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District treatment plants however, is unknown.
That’s because the EPA didn’t measure at the sewer plants and because no local authorities in Northeast Ohio even test for PFCs in water — wastewater or drinking water.
Cleveland water officials site test, general safety of water
But Cleveland Water Commissioner J. Christopher Nielson said there was one other number buried in the study that should allay fears for now — a reading of 5.75 parts per trillion in the tap water the local companies used as rinse water, well below the provisional health advisory.
“That tells me that at least from what they know now, we have a lot of room before it’s unsafe,” he said. “We’re all becoming more aware, though, of PFCs as a concern since the EPA placed it on a candidate list for contaminants in drinking water.”
And while Cleveland’s water division does not now test for the chemical compound — Harris said only one lab in America has the equipment to detect PFCs at minuscule levels — the water supply for the city and 70 surrounding suburbs is also protected by the “volume of Lake Erie itself” and by the fact that the intake is about three miles offshore, Nielson said.
“And until more studies of the effects of PFCs in drinking water are conducted, all of the numbers are a little suspect,” Nielson said.
The ODH’s Fry was more direct. “We have good animal data and lousy human data on this stuff,” he said.
PFCs fall into the “emerging contaminants” category, Scott Broski, manager of Water Quality & Industrial Surveillance for the sewer district said in an e-mail. “We do not have [pollution] permit limits for PFCs and because of that we are not required to monitor for them,” Broski said in an e-mail.
But both Broski and a scientist for the district said they suspect that at least some PFCs are likely to be removed from the waste along with solids at certain points during the treatment of wastewater.
And sewer district inspectors already check metal-plating companies for pollutants like heavy metals, cyanide and “a specific list of toxic organics,” he said. “But PFCs are not regulated under these regulations and therefore there are no standards to hold these industries to,” Broski said.
But the EPA’s Harris said researchers are also turning their attention to drinking water supplies — because of the dearth of information on PFCs in drinking water and existing studies about how pervasive the chemical is in the environment already.
“Some studies of PFCs in drinking water have showed almost none and some showed a trace — but no one yet knows the source for those chemicals,” she said. “Obviously, a lot more needs to be done in that area.”
PFCs: What are they?
You’re already quite familiar with perfluorinated compounds.
They might be in that nonstick pan you fried your eggs in, the fast-food container left over from last night’s late-night snack or even in the fabric of your favorite flame-retardant pajama pants.
PFCs are “manmade chemicals that resist heat, water, oil, grease and stains,” according to a Ohio Department of Health fact sheet, and have been in increasing use for half a century.
Federal environmental health authorities, having already regulated the use of PFCs in those household products like as Scotchgard and Teflon, are now looking to another widespread industry — metal plating, which uses PFCs to suppress fumes.
Some electroplating, the process used to cover items like toasters and car bumpers with chrome, produces an airborne byproduct called hexavalent chromium, a highly toxic carcinogen.
But many of the plating plants use chromium baths to keep the carcinogen out of the air. The liquid — and the PFCs — are then dumped into the sewers and beyond. That’s of great concern because a number of studies have suggested that the compounds can cause cancer in humans.
“Collectively, PFCs are molecules that are made primarily of flourine and carbon bound together to create a very strong chemical bond,” Fry said. “Because of that, they’re not very reactive — which makes them great for insulating against fire, but also means they don’t break down easily in water and that’s a problem.
Environmental health experts also say that PFCs can stay in the body for decades, but so far the human research is limited.
That could change over the next several years.
More than 70,000 people in West Virginia and southeastern Ohio — exposed to PFCs released by DuPont into their water supply — have taken blood tests as part of the class-action lawsuit settlement with the company.
“Those results will take a while yet, but eventually we’ll have the largest epidemiological study in history on PFCs,” Fry said. “We’re going to learn a lot more about these compounds.”
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