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How new federal regulations on 'forever chemicals' in drinking water impact Floridians

 Drinking water samples being taken from Tampa Bay Water's Lake Bridge Water Treatment Plant in Hillsborough County.
Jessica Meszaros
Drinking water samples being taken from Tampa Bay Water's Lake Bridge Water Treatment Plant in Hillsborough County.

The Miami area has had the highest documented levels of PFAS chemicals in Florida drinking water. Although the Tampa region is much lower, utilities will likely need to take action.

Officials with Tampa Bay Water say they have been preparing for new drinking water standards announced Wednesday by the federal government.

The historic regulations will control the amount of "forever chemicals" in tap water.

RELATED: EPA puts limits on 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

The large group of man-made chemicals, known as PFAS, has been used for 80 years in numerous household and personal products.

Manufactured by several large companies including Dupont and 3M, PFAS have strong molecular bonds that don't break down for a long time, which is why they're known as "forever chemicals."

Long-term exposure to certain types has been linked to cancer, liver damage and even high cholesterol.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has now issued maximum contamination levels for six of these chemicals in drinking water.

"This is really historic and an incredible accomplishment of really this administration, following through on a campaign promise to regulate these chemicals, and to take action to address cancer," said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

He's been studying and advocating against PFAS for over a decade.

The maximum contaminant levels for PFOA, the chemical that was used to manufacture Teflon, and PFOS, the chemical commonly used in textile coatings as well as firefighting foam, are at 4 parts per trillion (ppt).

“And that limit was set as close as possible to zero. … The labs can't detect below 4, so this is set as low as possible,” said Andrews.

For PFNA, PFHxS, and “GenX Chemicals” the maximum contaminant levels are 10 parts per trillion.

Because PFAS can often be found together in mixtures, EPA is also setting a limit for any mixture of two or more of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and “GenX Chemicals.”

This means utilities are now required to test for the six PFAS and filter them out if they exceed limits.

Click here to view an interactive map of PFAS contamination in the U.S.

Environmental Working Group

Andrews said the Miami area has had the highest documented levels of PFAS chemicals in Florida drinking water with 47 ppt of PFOS detected in 2013 at Miami International Airport, and 58 ppt of PFOS detected at Miami Beach in 2014.

But he said Tampa region utilities will also likely have to take some action, with the Tampa Water Department recording 6.9 ppt of PFOS and 4.6 ppt of PFOA last year.

"Whether that be installing filtration or blending water with uncontaminated water to ensure that it's below these new legal limits," Andrews said.

Tampa Bay Water, which supplies to Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, as well as the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey, has also detected a slight exceedance of PFOS at 4.4 ppt in its Lithia Water Treatment Plant.

"I think we have the people, the process and the technology in place to address this issue,” said Brandon Moore, with Tampa Bay Water.

The utility has been voluntarily testing for PFAS since this past summer.

Tampa Bay Water will need to wait for the yearlong testing to end this summer to calculate the annual average before it can decide if filtration upgrades are needed.

But utilities can shield their customers from the cost of any changes through federal grants within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

"We'd have to see if we qualify but with any project that we do, whether it's water quality projects or infrastructure projects, we always pursue state and federal funding and grants to try to reduce the impact on the ratepayers at the Tampa Bay region," Moore said.

Tampa Bay Water is also part of a class action lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers, sellers and distributors, which are accused of being behind the contamination.

MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa also recorded in its groundwater 517,000 ppt of PFOS in 2018, along with 62,400 ppt of PFOA.

Copyright 2024 WUSF 89.7

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of All Things Consideredfor WGCU News.