EDITOR'S NOTE: Communities across the country are wrestling with how to deal with PFAS in public drinking water. The NBC10 Investigators are looking at the problem to show how widespread the issue is and what states in the Philadelphia region are doing to address it.
They are in our clothes, on our non-stick pans, and on food packaging. And these molecular compounds aren't going anyway for a while.
So-called "forever chemicals," which describe a group of synthetic chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are found in hundreds of everyday products as well as more specialized materials like firefighting foam.
And in recent years, experts believe PFAS are finding their way into drinking water for communities in Pennsylvania and other states.
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"It’s alarming. It’s scary. It’s certainly not acceptable that it’s in our water system," said Shane Pepe, the borough manager in Emmaus, a small municipality in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.
PFAS were recently found in high concentrations in wells that Emmaus households and businesses use for drinking water. One borough well had almost twice the federal advisory level. Another had 10 times above the federal level. Those findings came from tests by the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection.
A state environmental advocate said in an interview with the NBC10 Investigators that revelations about the proliferation of PFAS in drinking water and public wells have put health officials on alert. The state DEP is currently accepting public input on drafts of environmental regulatory policies.
"Over the last decade, we’ve really realized what a big threat they are to our health," Stephania Wein of PennEnvironment said. "The science is pretty clear that they're a threat to our hormones, that they're a threat in terms of cancer risk."
In the case of Emmaus and some other towns in southeastern Pennsylvania that have found public wells contaminated by PFAS in recent years, officials believe the forever chemicals at fault are related to firefighter foam used at training facilities and military installations.
In 2019, the Pennsylvania DEP identified 493 public water systems in the state that are located within half a mile of a potential source of PFAS contamination. Several years ago, PFAS contamination closed drinking wells and caused health concerns in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
"They’ve been using this foam here for decades," Pepe said of a training facility just steps away from one of Emmaus' wells.
He said he believes Emmaus is not alone dealing with this problem -- one that has become an expensive for the borough. Pepe said he had to purchase a $400,000 filtration system for the borough well water, and it'll take 10 months to install.
"We’re not the only municipality dealing with this. There are several (already)," Pepe said. "And I anticipate there’s going to be a lot more."