University of Cincinnati researchers found in a recent study that Tristate residents have a higher level of a chemical in their bodies, likely due to industrial discharge into the Ohio River.
The chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, has been linked to a number of health issues but is historically understudied, experts say. Now, researchers across the nation are looking into the chemical, which was widely used as a water-resistant coating in products such as stain-resistant carpet and ski wax, according to our partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer.
The UC study examined historical data from blood samples from more than 900 residents that lived in the mid-Ohio River Valley between 1991 and 2012 and compared those levels to the general population median. Residents of Huntington, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Louisville and Evansville, Indiana were among those studied.
The study is significant because it's the first to look at levels of historic levels of PFOA in adults, Susan Pinney said. Pinney is a professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the UC College of Medicine and a member of both the Cincinnati Cancer Consortium and the UC Cancer Institute.
PFOA and similar chemicals were released into the environment between 1951 to 2015. For residents of the Ohio River Valley, the UC study found that a DuPont manufacturing plant and its two landfills located upriver in West Virginia are likely the sources of the contamination.
Another study Pinney was involved in measured puberty development in girls in Cincinnati, San Francisco and New York City. The study found high PFOA levels in girls from Northern Kentucky, which led to Pinney studying levels in adults living in the area.
"Most of us who have lived around here for a long time probably still have higher (PFOA) levels, they're still coming down," Pinney said.
Pinney has lived in the Cincinnati region for more than 40 years and she's not worried about drinking the water here. She said water companies know how to treat the water and are able to remove as much PFOA as possible.
Co-author Robert Herrick, a UC doctoral student, traced the blood samples to a certain water treatment plant so the different types of filters could be compared for effectiveness. While treating the water is effective, Pinney said, it doesn't completely eliminate PFOA.
Nationwide study finds chemicals in tap water
PFOA belongs to a group of chemicals known as PFCs or PFASs, chemicals used in metal plating, computer semiconductors, water-resistant coatings and fire-fighting foam. PFOAs no longer are made in the U.S., but are still in use in other nations – and may be in goods imported from those countries, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
At the DuPont Washington Works plant, the source of contamination in the Ohio River, the chemical was used to make Teflon coating, Pinney said.
Another new study, released in June by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Northeastern University, found PFCs in the tap water of more than 15 million people across 27 states. EWG specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of toxic chemicals, public lands and corporate accountability.
The study found more than four dozen contamination sites, including the DuPont Washington Works plant.
"We were struck that PFASs are a ubiquitous global contaminant and have a multi-decade history of contamination episodes around the world," said Phil Brown, director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University.
In a statement about the study, Brown said the project revealed the inadequacy of chemical regulation in the U.S. and highlighted the need for chemical policy that protects the health of citizens.
"As we uncover the pervasive pollution of drinking water, the chemical companies have already shifted production to a similar set of chemicals that are likely no better," EWG senior scientist David Andrews said.
The EPA has a health advisory for consumption of PFOA-laden drinking water, but the EPA's health advisories are non-enforceable and non-regulatory. According to the EPA, a lifetime of exposure to PFOA and PFOS from drinking water should be limited to 70 parts per trillion (ppt).
The EWG study sampled tap water in Lousiville and found that between 2013 and 2016 two out of eight water samples detected an average of 5 ppt with some samples having a maximum of 20 ppt. In Gallia County, West Virginia, the study found that one out of two PFOA samples detected an average of 10 ppt with a maximum of 20 ppt.
In February, DuPont and its spin-off Chemours agreed to pay $671 million to settle more than 3,500 lawsuits involving the leaks of PFOA from its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia into community water supplies, USA TODAY reported.
In July of last year, an Ohio man diagnosed with cancer was awarded more than $5 million in damages from DuPont. The federal jury said DuPont acted with malice by dumping chemicals into the Ohio River.
According to USA TODAY, an industry risk assessor hired by DuPont found that the company dumped more than 1.7 million pounds of PFOA into the environment between 1951 and 2003. That study discovered 632,468 pounds made its way into the Ohio River.
More: Taking on DuPont: Illnesses, deaths blamed on pollution from W. Va. plant
Impact on humans needs more study
"I think the clearest health effects are that it does something to the immune system, such that vaccines are not as effective," Pinney said. "Also, asthma seems to be more prevalent in people who have had PFOA exposure."
Several studies have also shown that puberty maturation in women is delayed by PFOA.
"Is this a bad thing? We don't know," Pinney said.
Other studies have shown that high levels of PFOA in mothers can lead to smaller birth weights and smaller body mass index (BMI) in infants, but this reverses in adults. Adults with higher levels of PFOAs often have higher BMIs, Pinney said.
"In laboratory animals given large amounts, PFOA can affect growth and development, reproduction and injure the liver. More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to PFOA," the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website.
Pinney said there's still much to learn about this chemical and the way it impacts populations with high concentrations.
"For me, the takeaway is 'How did this happen?' ' Pinney said. "It wasn't until the late 1990s that people started asking questions about this chemical."
While scientists don't exactly know how the chemical impacts the immune system, Pinney said there are hints.
"Because the elimination time could be several years, it is hard to determine what impact these environmental exposures may have on our health and children's health," Pinney said. "This data from the 1990s demonstrates that the contaminants have been in our water a long time, at unchecked levels, before anyone was paying attention to it."