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Are there 'forever chemicals' in your well water? DHEC accepting requests for PFAS testing

Vials containing PFAS samples sit in a tray at a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lab in Cincinnati. On April 10, 2024, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its first-ever limits for several common types of PFAS, the so-called "forever chemicals," in drinking water.
Joshua A. Bickel
AP Photo
Vials containing PFAS samples sit in a tray at a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lab in Cincinnati. On April 10, 2024, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its first-ever limits for several common types of PFAS, the so-called "forever chemicals," in drinking water.

On April 10, 2024, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a final rule regarding the maximum amount of five individual per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals,” in drinking water.

In response, the Biden administration issued a new, legally enforceable drinking water standard regarding PFAS, investing $1 billion to help implement testing and treatment at public water systems and to help owners of private wells address such contamination.

According to the EPA, PFAS are widely used, long-lasting chemicals that break down very slowly over time. They’re found in water, air, fish, and soil across the nation and the globe. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences notes that PFAS have been used in consumer products worldwide since the 1950s to make items such as nonstick food packaging like pizza boxes, burger wrappers, paper plates, and molded fiber salad bowls, as well as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant clothing and carpets, floor wax, and in more-effective firefighting foam.

In 2016, a National Toxicology Program review by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated that exposure to PFAS is hazardous to both humans and animals, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adding that research suggests exposure to some PFAS compounds might result in harmful health outcomes, including cancer, increased cholesterol levels, and immune system effects. At Clemson University, new research has emerged that indicates PFAS chemicals may be associated with both childhood and adult obesity.

Jennifer Hughes, chief of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's (DHEC) Bureau of Water, says that there are over 9,000 PFAS chemicals, but PFAS compounds with drinking water maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) are the ones that have been most studied and are believed to have adverse health effects at certain concentrations. Two of those compounds, PFOS and PFOA, were voluntarily phased out of production in the mid-2000s by manufacturers, but they can still be found in imported consumer products.

“The EPA has stated that drinking water can be the most direct way that people are exposed to PFAS; however, drinking water is only responsible for about 20% of most people’s overall exposure to PFAS compounds,” said Hughes, explaining that the other 80% come from consumer products, and that efforts are underway nationally to reduce exposure from such sources.

So, while public water systems across the U.S. are currently in the process of implementing the Biden administration’s new drinking water standard, how do private well owners go about testing for PFAS compounds? And what can they do if those compounds are found to test above the new standard?

Fran Marshall, DHEC’s environmental public health director, clarifies that private wells are regulated differently than public systems, and are not subject to the same standards. So while DHEC permits a private well’s construction, it’s left up to the property owner to conduct routine maintenance and pursue testing.

Ray Holberger, environmental health specialist at DHEC, says his agency is currently accepting requests for well water testing, which is being funded by a one-time budgetary proviso for PFAS sampling that was granted by the S.C. Legislature in 2022. The agency is prioritizing “areas of interest” where they believe PFAS might be present in groundwater.

Holberger says the Sandhills area of South Carolina is particularly vulnerable due to the high infiltration rates of the land’s geology, which was once comprised of ancient sand dunes and now has unconfined aquafers where private wells are more shallow, making them susceptible to influence from the surface and groundwater. The land there also has older septic fields that were built too close to wells over 30 years ago before contemporary regulations were established, making them a potential source for groundwater contamination.

The Piedmont’s aquifers are another area of interest for testing, particularly when abutting a surface water body, like a lake or a pond.

Darlington County is also of interest, where waste sludge was used as plant fertilizer from the Galey and Lord textile plant.

In addition, DHEC is interested in testing the water of residents in smaller lots and in older neighborhoods next to water bodies with high densities of older septic fields, which could be a potential source for PFAS contamination.

Meantime, are there measures individuals can take to reduce their exposure to PFAS compounds?

DHEC’s Chemicals of Emerging Concern Specialist Sandra Snyder suggests people visit the EPA’s online resource, “Safer Choice,” to see a list of products that offer alternatives for consumers. Snyder also suggests consumers look into granulated activated carbon products, which can be purchased at stores and online, to reduce the PFAS concentrations right from the faucet.

Linda Núñez is a South Carolina native, born in Beaufort, then moved to Columbia. She began her broadcasting career as a journalism student at the University of South Carolina. She has worked at a number of radio stations along the East Coast, but is now happy to call South Carolina Public Radio "home." Linda has a passion for South Carolina history, literature, music, nature, and cooking. For that reason, she enjoys taking day trips across the state to learn more about our state’s culture and its people.