Before radio host Jill Buck interviewed Rob Bilott on her weekly show, she had never heard of the environmental lawyer, or of the toxic chemical at the center of his West Virginia water contamination lawsuit against DuPont. But after closing the show, Buck wondered: how safe is my town’s water?
“I opened Google and typed in ‘PFAS chemicals Pleasanton,'” she said. “What I found absolutely floored me.”
As it turns out, Pleasanton had a contamination problem of its own. Last January, the state initiated a pilot testing program for the previously unregulated PFAS chemicals. By April, Pleasanton had shut down one of its three wells, which provide drinking water to 25 percent of the 80,000-person city. These substances, common in industrial and commercial products, are toxic to human health — and they’re showing up in water supplies nationwide.
Initial California State Water Board test results released in October reveal that more than 7.5 million Californians are drinking contaminated water. And that number is about to grow: in January, a state law is supposed to take effect requiring hundreds more California communities to begin testing municipal water supplies for the chemicals and sharing the findings with the public.
“PFAS are the next environmental challenge of our time,” said Andria Ventura, Toxic Substances Manager at the nonprofit Clean Water Action. “If you haven’t heard of them yet, you will.”
PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are actually a class of thousands of manmade chemical compounds first developed in the 1950s, and popularized by DuPont as the non-stick in Teflon pans. For decades, they’ve been used in countless industrial and consumer products for their stain-resistant, grease-resistant, and flame-retardant properties. They’re in our homes covering our couches and carpets, and they run off from landfills, military testing sites, and airports, into groundwater. Dubbed “forever chemicals,” once they enter the environment, they persist for geologic time.
But they’re toxic — which we know thanks to Buck’s radio guest, lawyer Rob Bilott. Back in 2003, Bilott sued DuPont on behalf of a West Virginia community that faced decades of exposure to one common variety of the chemical, PFOA, in its drinking water from a Teflon plant. The community received a multimillion-dollar settlement that it used to fund a health study on area residents — the largest epidemiological study in human history. This lawsuit was dramatized in the recent film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo as Bilott.
The resulting 2013 study, carried out by researchers at Emory University, Brown University, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, collected blood samples from more than 69,000 residents living in the area around the plant over the course of eight years. Their findings definitively linked PFOA exposure to diseases like pregnancy-induced hypertension, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, and testicular and kidney cancer. The study also found that these chemicals are bioaccumulative: just like they persist in the environment, animal and human studies show that they build up in blood over time.
“PFAS are unique in that they’re not just incredibly toxic,” said Amy Kyle, researcher at the U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health. “They don’t break down. Whatever’s in our blood is going to stay there.”
In response to C8 Study results, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to test for the chemicals in drinking water nationwide. The 2013 Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule study revealed that contamination was widespread across the nation, particularly near landfills, military training sites, and airports.
Despite this new information, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still did not move to regulate the compounds. Instead, in 2016, the agency set a “health advisory level” for PFAS exposure at just 70 parts per trillion. It maintains this recommendation to this day, despite a 2018 exposure health study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which found that drinking water containing concentrations above 7-11 parts per trillion could have adverse affects on human health.
Most states have followed the EPA’s lead, and adopted its porous 70-parts-per-trillion health advisory level. Some states, however, have set their own, stricter regulations. New Jersey recently joined four other states that have adopted more stringent safety limits, by setting a limit of 13 and 14 parts per trillion for the two most common forms of the chemicals, PFOS and PFOA. Michigan, which learned its lesson through the Flint water contamination crisis, has adopted the nation’s lowest drinking water limits for the chemicals, at 5 parts per trillion. Six more states, including Washington and Pennsylvania, have proposed limits that are now heading toward adoption.
Following the 2013 EPA study, many states also expanded testing — often uncovering a deeper contamination problem. For example, Michigan currently claims the nation’s highest number of sites where the compounds have been detected, at 192, but it also has conducted the most extensive testing. Results from its 2018 statewide, multi-agency testing efforts ballooned the EPA’s estimated affected population from 200,000 people to two million.
Experts believe that as California expands its own testing in January, residents of the state are due for their own rude awakening. “The more you test for these chemicals, the more you find,” said Ventura of Clean Water Action. “Give it a few months, and the California map will light up.”
California’s testing and regulation efforts are still fledgling. Last July heralded passage of landmark state PFAS monitoring act. Assembly member Cristina Garcia sponsored the bill in response to EPA data showing high detection levels in her Los Angeles County district. Under this new law, effective January, the state will broadly expand its testing efforts, and will require water utilities to notify the public about contamination for the first time.
In August, the state lowered its “notification levels” — the level at which water suppliers have to alert local governments about contamination — from the EPA’s 70 parts per trillion standard to 13 and 14 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA, respectively.
Last April, when Pleasanton’s initial tests revealed that Well Eight contained PFAS levels of 108 parts per trillion, the city immediately took the well offline. To make up for the lost water supply, it increased pumping from its other two wells. But those also contained the chemicals: at 35 and 30 parts per trillion of combined PFOS and PFOA, respectively. And when the state lowered its “notification levels” for these substances in August, all three of Pleasanton’s wells dipped into dangerous territory. So the city shifted to a public outreach campaign.
“We made it a priority to be as proactive and transparent as possible,” said Kathleen Yurchak, Pleasanton’s Director of Operations.
In late October, just two weeks after Jill Buck’s Google search, she received an informational mailer. It told her what the chemicals are, outlined the known health risks, and directed her to a city website. For many Pleasanton residents like Buck, this information wasn’t just a deep-dive into a new toxic chemical. It was a beginner’s course in the complexity of their own water supply.
“California water is complicated, and Pleasanton is no exception,” said Todd Yamello, Pleasanton’s Assistant Director of Operations, “We’re still trying to get a handle on our options here.”
Unlike large Bay Area water utilities such as the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which pipe surface water from the Sierra Nevadas, Pleasanton has a small city-run system dependent on wells. Because the compounds leech into the earth from rainwater runoff, groundwater supplies like those in Pleasanton are particularly at risk.
Pleasanton gets its water from two main sources: the city’s wells, and local wholesaler Zone 7 Water Agency. Since the city shut down Well Eight in April, it has relied on pumping more water from its Wells Six and Seven. But Yurchak said this is not intended as a long-term solution. And the city can’t count on alternative water sources: like many California communities, its Zone 7 water allotment comes as part of the California State Water Project allocations, which vary from year to year. At some points between 2013 and 2016, during the height of the drought, the state reduced Pleasanton’s water allotment to zero.
Even if the city had unlimited access to uncontaminated water, it lacks the pipe infrastructure to distribute it citywide. “Some people say, ‘just buy more Zone 7 water,” said Kathleen Yurchak. “The problem is, we have large sections of the city that rely on groundwater.”
And Zone 7 has contamination issues of its own. The agency blends state surface water with its own local groundwater wells, and the state’s pilot test results revealed that almost all of those wells contained some levels of PFAS. In April, the agency took a well that tested at 101 parts per trillion offline.
At a Pleasanton City Council meeting in early November, Yurchak and the city’s operations department laid out the contamination problem and discussed the city’s options. The council voted to hire a consultant for a $400,000, two-year feasibility study to assess the costs of treating its wells with reverse osmosis or other processes. But such treatment is expensive: Yurchak says she’s heard cost estimates of between $1.5 and $15 million per year to treat just one well. And the burden of that expense will end up on residents’ utility bills.
“We’re looking at doubling or tripling water bills,” said City Councilmember Jerry Pentin.
And the city still doesn’t know where the contamination is coming from. Because the chemicals have become so ubiquitous and persistent in the environment, high detection levels don’t always point to an obvious polluter, like an industrial facility, a landfill, or an airport.
“If we could find out where this was coming from, we could remove that source,” said Buck. “That’s a lot less expensive than treatment.”
At the Pleasanton headquarters of Buck’s nonprofit, Go Green Alliance, she has attempted some site investigations of her own. Industrial facilities surround the contaminated Well Eight site, including a Cemex plant and the Pleasanton Garbage Service.
“I hate to point fingers, but we’ve got to get answers,” she said.
But water utilities are responsible for cleaning up chemicals, not tracing their source. The burden of source investigations falls to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which currently has 74 water systems statewide to investigate.
In the meantime, Pleasanton officials anticipate that the state will lower notification and response levels once again in the coming months — which could force all three wells to shut down.
“We’re a small town. We are simply not going to solve the global PFAS problem on our own,” said Pentin. “We need the state to take the lead, the federal government to take the lead, and help us find solutions so our water is safe.”
Buck says that since reading health studies about the substances, she can’t help but think twice about all of the people in her neighborhood with inexplicable illnesses. She lists the people she knows who have gotten sick: friends, neighbors, and children on her block struggling with cancers and autoimmune disorders.
“Of course I have no idea if they’re linked to PFAS,” she said. “But knowing what I know now, I can’t shake the question: was it from the water?”