DALTON, Ga. — A University of Georgia scientist said studies will be conducted this summer on fish and mussels in the Conasauga River to test for a chemical an Environmental Protection Agency advisory board calls a “likely carcinogen.”
Perfluoroctanoic acid, also called PFOA or C8, has been used by the floor covering industry to develop stain-resistant carpets.
Ecotoxicologist Robert Bringolf said levels of PFOA and its compounds are found in the Conasauga River that far exceed a drinking-water standard set recently in Minnesota.
He said officials in Minnesota, where a 3M plant manufactured PFOA, also are grappling with the pollutant.
“We have definitely got some concerns here,” Dr. Bringolf told fellow scientists at a Conasauga River Summit in Rome, Ga., last week. But Georgia has no set standard for Dalton officials to measure against.
Dalton Utilities President Don Cope said that he is “glad to support” testing for the chemical in the Conasauga, the city’s primary water source, but needs to have state or federal regulations in place.
“If we were involved in anything that would hurt anybody, that would bother me,” Mr. Cope said. “But I can’t get overly concerned about it until somebody gives me a body of research and tells me what to do.”
At the summit, scientists presented plans to test for the chemical and its compounds.
The studies would be the first conducted to test Conasauga River wildlife for accumulations of the chemical that builds up through exposure in the environment and food.
“The higher you move up in the food web, you’re going to have higher concentrations,” Dr. Bringolf said about PFOA, developed by chemical companies to provide non-stick properties. It has been legally used for decades by industries that also includes nonstick cookware and stain-resistant carpets.
A previous UGA study found “staggeringly high” levels of PFOA in the Conasauga, and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division plans to conduct its own drinking-water sampling for PFOA this year, even though the federal EPA has not completed its assessment of the chemical’s risks.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” said Jane Hendricks, program manager for the permitting compliance section of EPD’s watershed protection branch.
She said Georgia wants to have data on hand to compare to EPA’s standards when the risk assessment is completed.
EPA officials say a completed risk assessment is years away.
The previous UGA study was done by graduate students of former UGA professor Aaron Fisk. He said the fisheries testing in 2006 and 2007 found PFOA levels comparable to the highest ever measured at a nonspill location.
Dr. Fisk believes that PFOA has made its way virtually unchanged from Dalton’s carpet mills and into the river via the Looper’s Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The facility sprays treated wastewater onto a wooded peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Conasauga, downstream from Dalton’s drinking water intakes.
“Nobody should be eating fish in that Looper’s Bend area,” Dr. Fisk previously said.
Dr. Bringolf’s study will look for PFOA and its compounds in spotted bass and common mussels.
“Anecdotal evidence shows that mussels are consumed by people in the Dalton area, which I was very surprised to hear and very disturbed to hear,” he said.
Local bait shop owner Wes Forester said he stopped eating Conasauga River fish when he learned about PFOA.
Other locals still eat the fish they catch, he said, but, “I imagine they might quit when they find out about this stuff.”
The UGA study of fish and mussels likely will begin this summer, summit scientists were told.
The U.S. Geological Survey also plans a chemical study on the Conasauga as soon as water levels recede enough to gather the river’s sediment.
That study will expose lab worms to the mud to see how quickly PFOA accumulates in their bodies, said Peter Lasier, principal investigator for the Geological Survey study.
Dr. Lasier and other scientists emphasized that little is known about the toxicity of PFOA.
Frank Sagona, watershed director of the Conasauga River Alliance, said it is “way too early” to know the effects of PFOA on humans.
Dr. Lasier’s pilot survey of PFOA in November 2006 found roughly 10 times the amount of PFOA and its compounds in the Conasauga as levels commonly found in other waters, he said.
While scientists do not know exactly what, if anything, PFOA does to humans, the EPA reports that it causes “developmental and adverse effects in laboratory animals” and has “potential human health concerns.”
Dr. Bringolf said his planned studies will help area residents make informed decisions about whether or not to eat fish out of the Conasauga.
He stressed that PFOA “is not natural.”