The shoreline of Little River. There is no wind or visible current, so the trees on the far shore are reflected nearly perfectly.

When ‘forever’ is everywhere

Samples show PFAS chemicals throughout state waterways

by Sydney Cromwell

When as many as 97% of Americans have “forever” chemicals in their bloodstreams, it’s not surprising these industrial chemicals are omnipresent in our waterways, too.

But now, data from both nationwide and statewide sampling projects are providing hard proof that PFAS can be found in drinking water and rivers, lakes and streams across the state, even far from the industries that create them. 

It’s time, Alabama’s waterkeeper organizations say, for state officials and regulators to take notice.

WHAT ARE PFAS CHEMICALS?

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of industrial chemicals used to make products resistant to heat, water, oil, grease or stains. That includes everything from clothes and food packaging to firefighting foam.

PFAS get the nickname “forever” chemicals because they take so long to break down in the environment — in some cases more than a thousand years.

“The public needs to realize how many products they touch and use, you know, takeout containers, that have this,” Coosa Riverkeeper Justinn Overton said. “… This chemical family has so many different compounds and is used in so many different consumer products that I think it’s a good opportunity for us to talk to folks about the things that they buy.”

There are many types of PFAS compounds, such as PFOA, PFOS, GenX and PFBS. Studies have linked this family of chemicals to various forms of cancer and birth defects, as well as damage to the liver, kidney, thyroid, cardiovascular system and immune system.

Many people are exposed to PFAS chemicals through everyday products they buy, Mobile Baykeeper Cade Kistler said. They can also seep into drinking water supplies, either directly from the industries that use them or indirectly from landfills and wastewater treatment plants that handle those PFAS-containing items.

Read more from Southern Science on the sites in Alabama with the worst exposure to PFAS chemicals.

“PFAS compounds are well known to have a lot of deleterious effects on human health,” Kistler said. There is also growing concern about how these long-lived chemicals may weaken immune systems or cause other health problems in freshwater and ocean creatures.

It takes only a miniscule amount of exposure to these chemicals to potentially harm your health. As of summer 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends limiting lifetime exposure to 2,000 parts per trillion of PFBs and just 10 parts per trillion of GenX chemicals. 

PFOA and PFOS are considered even more unsafe: the acceptable level of exposure in drinking water is now 0.004 parts per trillion of PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS. Prior to last year’s advisory, the EPA had set the lifetime safe exposure at 70 parts per trillion for both chemicals combined — nearly 3,000 times higher than the new limit.

It’s important to note, however, that current PFAS tests can’t detect PFOA or PFOS at such small concentrations, meaning some water systems could have undetected but still unsafe levels of these chemicals.

“You’re not waking up to a new pollutant that’s never been there before, it’s that we’re starting to understand it,” Kistler said.

This drastic cut in safe exposure levels is a reflection of recent new research into the dangers posed by these chemicals, which have been produced since the 1940s.

“We’re way behind the 8-ball on this,” Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke said.

“If it can’t be produced without causing major harm, then it shouldn’t be produced.”

Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper

Just like research and testing, the waterkeepers say regulation of PFAS has also lagged.

“There are very few rules, especially in a state like Alabama, on how much they can discharge,” Kistler said.

According to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) website, the state does not have any regulatory authority over facilities discharging PFAS until the EPA classifies them as hazardous substances, a move that was proposed last year. Some states have already moved to restrict or ban certain products manufactured with PFAS.

ADEM does monitor PFAS levels in drinking-water sources and through fish tissue samples, and it has used the EPA’s previous advisories as a benchmark for safe levels. Southern Science has reached out to ADEM for more details on how it will respond to the new EPA standards.

On the federal level, many companies have also been able to avoid reporting on their PFAS discharges and handling if they used the chemicals in sufficiently small concentrations, thanks to an exemption in the federal Toxic Release Inventory reporting program.

“Right now, if you want to discharge, you have a blank check,” Kistler said.

A “FIRST ATTEMPT” AT FINDING PFAS

The health effects of PFAS chemicals have put them under increasing national scrutiny, including the EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap, launched in 2021, to improve testing, regulation and cleanup of these chemicals.

This past summer, the national Waterkeeper Alliance conducted one of the largest PFAS sampling efforts yet, with 113 organizations collecting samples from waterways across the United States to test for 40 different PFAS compounds, according to the alliance’s summary of its results.

That included eight waterkeeper groups in Alabama. Angie Shugart of Little Riverkeeper said it was exciting to “pull together” with other water quality organizations for this effort.

“A lot of folks are working on it, but it’s still such a new issue that I think we’re all going to be reaching out to each other for examples,” she said.

Each organization received a Cyclopure testing kit and selected a site to collect two samples, one upstream and one downstream. Brooke said some of the organizations chose known PFAS contamination sites to test, while others are just beginning to understand the presence of PFAS in their waterways and chose more general testing sites. 

“Ultimately, this was a first attempt for a lot of organizations to look and see if there was PFAS at all in their waterways,” Brooke said.

A plastic crate with a Black Warrior Riverkeeper sticker sits open in the dirt beside a riverbank. Next to it are two testing kits, which look like plastic tubes, and a cardboard box.
The Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s PFAS testing kit. Photo courtesy of Nelson Brooke.

Shugart, for instance, tested a location where the various sources of the Little River meet in a confluence. The Coosa Riverkeeper chose Neely Henry Lake because it’s a popular fishing and recreation site that also has a drinking water intake, Overton said.

“There was no guarantee that we were downstream of anything because there’s so little information right now,” Kistler said of the chosen sampling site on the Mobile River.

The Black Warrior River has the opposite problem: with the number of industrial plants, landfills and wastewater facilities in its watershed, Brooke said picking a single PFAS source to sample “would have been a really hard choice to make because there’s so many of them.”

The water samples were submitted to the national Waterkeeper Alliance project, and the local waterkeepers got their results back in the fall. Across the country, 83% of sampling sites had measurable levels of at least one PFAS chemical.

Some of the highest concentrations of PFAS chemicals were found at sampling sites in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Rhode Island, Missouri and New York. In the Upper Coosa River, which flows from northern Georgia into Alabama’s Coosa River, the sampling found a total of 558 parts per trillion of PFAS chemicals.

Map is divided into 4 regions of the country, midwest, northeast, south and west. Circles denote each testing spot, with the size of the circle corresponding to the concentration of PFAS found there. The map shows a heavy preference toward testing sites on the east coast and in the south. Some of the largest circles are in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Rhode Island, Missouri and New York.
A map of nationwide PFAS sampling results. Courtesy of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

IT’S EVERYWHERE

While Alabama didn’t have the highest concentrations found nationwide, every single testing site in the state had at least one PFAS chemical found at unsafe levels.

The Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper found only one chemical, PFOS, in its testing site on the Pea River. The Little Riverkeeper and Hurricane Creekkeeper each found three different PFAS chemicals. The rest of the Alabama sampling sites each had seven or more different chemicals.

The Tennessee Riverkeeper and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper did not test sites in Alabama, but their waterways do include parts of the state. They found 11 and 7 different PFAS chemicals, respectively, at their sampling sites.

See the end of this article for the complete results from Waterkeeper Alliance’s sampling in Alabama.

Based on previous sampling done by the Environmental Working Group and research published by Auburn University in August 2022, Kistler said he expected from the start that this project would show widespread PFAS presence, especially on rivers with high amounts of industry like the Black Warrior, Coosa and Mobile rivers.

“We had a reason to believe that it would be there, for sure,” Brooke agreed. “… It’s a confirmation of what we were concerned about, that this stuff is pervasive and it’s all around us.”

Neely Henry Lake had the greatest number of PFAS compounds (13, in total) and the highest concentrations in the state. Overton said that is partly due to the contamination flowing down the Upper Coosa River from industry in Georgia, but the Coosa River has other PFAS sources in its watershed, such as landfills.

Overton said she didn’t expect to find PFOS levels 200 times higher than the safe threshold, and PFOA concentrations 4,200 times higher.

“I knew that we were going to find PFAS. I had no idea the concentration or the number of chemicals within the PFAS family that we’d find,” she said.

A man in a T-shirt, ball cap and sunglasses leans from the left side of the image. He's wearing a latex glove and holding a plastic cup full of water. A stream of water droplets runs off the cup, suggesting he's just dipped it into the lake water below.
Sampling on Neely Henry Lake. Photo courtesy of Justinn Overton.

Shugart, on the other hand, said she was not expecting to see that any amount of PFOA, PFOS and PFBS had made their way to the more remote Little River.

“We were really surprised because there’s no industry on the Little River,” she said. “… We’re just scratching our heads wondering how this happened.”

Without an obvious industrial source, Shugart said there are other possibilities for how the PFAS arrived in her watershed, including dumping of wastewater “sludge,” other pollution and rainfall or atmospheric conditions.

“Pollution can still be in a pristine watershed and you not ever imagine it,” Shugart said.

Separate from the Waterkeeper Alliance sampling project, ADEM also responded to the EPA’s new focus on PFAS with its own testing program at drinking-water systems around the state in 2020 and 2022. 

The combined results, which ADEM released in August 2022, showed 106 water systems reporting at least one detectable PFAS chemical in their wells or treatment plants.

“I knew that we were going to find PFAS. I had no idea the concentration or the number of chemicals within the PFAS family that we’d find.”

Justinn Overton, Coosa Riverkeeper

“WORSE THAN ANYBODY IMAGINED”

At the end of the day, the Waterkeeper Alliance survey and ADEM’s water system sampling is just the beginning of understanding where PFAS exist in Alabama and who is producing them.

These samples can only show a snapshot of a single site in a single river at a single moment, not the complete picture, Brooke said.

“I think that’s the only way to get an idea of what we’re looking at and what the numbers are is to do a significant amount of testing,” Brooke said. “… I would imagine there’s definitely going to be some higher numbers that are out there for us as we start looking closer at suspected sources.”

For nonprofits like the waterkeepers, finding the funding and manpower for comprehensive testing isn’t always realistic. The Waterkeeper Alliance study was a unique opportunity, since the testing and kits were provided at no charge.

“Unlimited testing budgets are not easy to come by, and so we can do some additional testing, but the sky is certainly not the limit, and we’re going to need to be strategic about what we test and where,” Brooke said.

Brooke believes testing, enforcement and cleanup should be the responsibility of governments rather than nonprofits, given the public danger posed by these chemicals.

“We need a lot more leadership on this,” he said.

A woman in a ball cap, sunglasses, life vest and pink rubber gloves leans over the side of a small boat. She holds a testing cup to dip into the river below.
Sampling on the Mobile River. Photo courtesy of Cade Kistler.

As part of its PFAS roadmap, the EPA is beginning an annual testing program this year for 29 PFAS chemicals across thousands of drinking-water systems, which will continue through 2025.

The EPA has added more PFAS chemicals to its Toxic Release Inventory, and it proposed in December to eliminate the reporting exemption for companies using only small amounts of PFAS. The agency has also proposed changes to the Clean Water Act and Superfund regulations to strengthen its oversight and response, and more updated regulations are expected over the next two years.

Some restaurants and retailers have committed to stopping use of PFAS products. 3M, which is one of the biggest PFAS producers and has a plant in Decatur with a history of unsafe discharges, has announced that it will stop manufacturing PFAS by 2025.

Brooke said he would prefer if 3M stopped PFAS manufacturing immediately. 

“It would be great to see announcements from more than one of these companies,” he said. “… If it can’t be produced without causing major harm, then it shouldn’t be produced.”

Many of the waterkeepers say their next steps will be in public education and advocacy for more and better regulations around PFAS, particularly focused on the companies that produce and use them.

“I think there needs to be a huge truth campaign on what we’re eating out of, what we’re getting our products out of,” Shugart said, adding that lifestyle changes will be needed to make PFAS chemicals less ubiquitous.

The Coosa Riverkeeper already provides fish advisories for fishermen to avoid eating fish with unsafe chemicals like mercury, but Overton said PFAS will “add a whole other layer of complexity” to making sure people can safely eat their catches.

“Public engagement is a critical role because there’s so many other pollutants and things that pull at people’s attention,” Overton said.

In her own watershed, people are still dealing with decades of industrial pollution from Monsanto’s production of PCBs, which has devastated the Anniston community. Overton said she fears PFAS could have a similar legacy.

Brooke agreed: “I think it’s going to be worse than anybody imagined because it was allowed to go on for so long.”

WATERKEEPER ALLIANCE SURVEY RESULTS

Below are the sampling sites tested by Alabama’s waterkeepers (or organizations whose watershed areas include Alabama) as part of the summer 2022 Waterkeeper Alliance nationwide sampling project. Each waterkeeper took one upstream and one downstream sample at their chosen site.
Each PFAS chemical that was found in large enough concentrations to be detected by the Cyclopure test is listed here. Results have been converted from nanograms per liter (ng/L) to parts per trillion (ppt). We have also included comparisons to the EPA’s new lifetime health advisory limits for PFOA and PFOS.
For those who want to learn more about the hazards of these chemicals, the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory provides a downloadable database
Click here to see ADEM’s PFAS testing results from drinking-water systems around the state in 2020 and 2022.

Sampling site: Black Warrior River
Organization: Black Warrior Riverkeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
PFBS — 1.3 ppt upstream, 1 ppt downstream
PFHpA — 1.3 ppt upstream
PFHxA — 1.8 ppt upstream, 1.7 ppt downstream
PFHxS — 1.7 ppt upstream, 1.2 ppt downstream
PFOA — 2 ppt upstream (500 times greater than lifetime health limit), 1.7 ppt downstream (425 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 3.6 ppt upstream (180 times greater than lifetime health limit), 3.9 ppt downstream (195 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFPeA — 1.7 ppt upstream, 2.2 ppt downstream

Sampling site: Buck Creek
Organization: Waterkeepers Alabama
PFAS chemicals found:
FBSA — 2.4 ppt downstream
PFBA — 1.4 ppt downstream
PFBS — 3.8 ppt upstream, 9.2 ppt downstream
PFHpA — 1.2 ppt downstream
PFHxA — 2.5 ppt upstream, 7.6 ppt downstream
PFHxS — 1.3 ppt upstream, 2.7 ppt downstream
PFOA — 2.7 ppt upstream (675 times greater than lifetime health limit), 5.1 ppt downstream (1,275 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 3.8 ppt upstream (190 times greater than lifetime health limit), 3.4 ppt downstream (170 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFPeA — 4.9 ppt upstream, 16.8 ppt downstream

Sampling site: Cahaba River
Organization: Cahaba Riverkeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
PFBA — 1 ppt upstream, 1.2 ppt downstream
PFBS — 3.8 ppt upstream, 5.7 ppt downstream
PFHpA — 1 ppt upstream, 1.2 ppt downstream
PFHxA — 2.4 ppt upstream, 4.2 ppt downstream
PFHxS — 1.1 ppt upstream, 2 ppt downstream
PFOA — 2.4 ppt upstream (600 times greater than lifetime health limit), 3.3 ppt downstream (825 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 3.2 ppt upstream (160 times greater than lifetime health limit), 4.4 ppt downstream (220 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFPeA — 3.4 ppt upstream, 6 ppt downstream

Sampling site: Chattahoochee River, Georgia
Organization: Chattahoochee Riverkeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
PFBS — 1.3 ppt upstream, 1.7 ppt downstream
PFHpA — 1.1 ppt upstream
PFHxA — 2.3 ppt upstream, 2.9 ppt downstream
PFHxS — 1.6 ppt downstream
PFOA — 1.9 ppt upstream (475 times greater than lifetime health limit), 2.5 ppt downstream (625 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 2 ppt upstream (100 times greater than lifetime health limit), 2.4 ppt downstream (120 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFPeA — 1.4 ppt upstream, 1.9 ppt downstream

Sampling site: Conasauga River, Georgia
Organization: Upper Coosa Riverkeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
FBSA — 24.4 ppt upstream, 63.4 ppt downstream
MeFBSA —1.4 ppt downstream
N-EtFOSAA — 1.1 ppt downstream
N-MeFOSAA — 1.8 ppt downstream
PFBA — 4.4 ppt upstream, 15.3 ppt downstream
PFBS — 87 ppt upstream, 207.4 ppt downstream
PFDA — 6.4 ppt downstream
PFHpA — 4.1 ppt upstream, 27 ppt downstream
PFHpS — 3.2 ppt downstream
PFHxA — 13.4 ppt upstream, 48.8 ppt downstream
PFHxS — 2.3 ppt upstream, 11.7 ppt downstream
PFNA — 7.1 ppt downstream
PFOA — 8.7 ppt upstream (2,175 times greater than lifetime health limit), 75.7 ppt downstream (18,925 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 9.6 ppt upstream (480 times greater than lifetime health limit), 82 ppt downstream (4,100 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOSA — 3.6 ppt downstream
PFPeA — 15 ppt upstream, 64 ppt downstream
PFPeS — 3.1 ppt downstream

Sampling site: Hurricane Creek
Organization: Hurricane Creekkeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
PFHxA — 1.3 ppt upstream, 1.2 ppt downstream
PFOA — 1.1 ppt upstream (275 times greater than lifetime health limit), 1.1 ppt downstream (275 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 1.4 ppt upstream (70 times greater than lifetime health limit), 1.4 ppt downstream (70 times greater than lifetime health limit)

Sampling site: Lick Creek (upstream), Jones Creek (downstream), Tennessee
Organization: Tennessee Riverkeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
ADONA — 1.3 ppt downstream
N-EtFOSAA — 1.9 ppt downstream
N-MeFOSAA — 2.7 ppt downstream
PFBS — 1.8 ppt downstream
PFDA — 1.3 ppt downstream
PFHpA — 1.6 ppt downstream
PFHxA — 5.9 ppt downstream
PFHxS — 1.2 ppt downstream
PFOA — 7.1 ppt downstream (1,775 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 7.2 ppt downstream (360 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFPeA — 6.8 ppt downstream

Sampling site: Mobile River
Organization: Mobile Baykeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
FBSA — 1.8 ppt upstream, 1.8 ppt downstream
PFBS — 8.4 ppt upstream, 8.1 ppt downstream
PFHpA — 1.5 ppt upstream, 1.5 ppt downstream
PFHxA — 3.4 ppt upstream, 3.1 ppt downstream
PFHxS — 1.1 ppt downstream
PFOA — 4.3 ppt upstream (1,075 times greater than lifetime health limit), 3.7 ppt downstream (925 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 6.5 ppt upstream (325 times greater than lifetime health limit), 5.8 ppt downstream (290 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFPeA — 3.5 ppt upstream, 3.8 ppt downstream

Sampling site: Neely Henry Lake
Organization: Coosa Riverkeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
FBSA — 9.4 ppt upstream, 7.7 ppt downstream
N-EtFOSAA — 1 ppt upstream, 1.1 ppt downstream
PFBA — 3.1 ppt upstream, 3 ppt downstream
PFBS — 48.7 ppt upstream, 37.6 ppt downstream
PFDA — 2.8 ppt upstream, 2.3 ppt downstream
PFHpA — 6 ppt upstream, 4.9 ppt downstream
PFHxA — 14 ppt upstream, 11.7 ppt downstream
PFHxS — 2.5 ppt upstream, 2.1 ppt downstream
PFNA — 1.8 ppt upstream, 1.4 ppt downstream
PFOA — 16.8 ppt upstream (4,200 times greater than lifetime health limit), 13.7 ppt downstream (3,425 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 27.8 ppt upstream (1,390 times greater than lifetime health limit), 22.2 ppt downstream (1,110 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOSA — 1.3 ppt upstream, 1.1 ppt downstream
PFPeA — 16.9 ppt upstream, 12.8 ppt downstream

Sampling site: Pea River
Organization: Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
PFOS — 1.3 ppt upstream (65 times greater than lifetime health limit), 1.1 ppt downstream (55 times greater than lifetime health limit)

Sampling site: West Fork of the Little River (upstream), Little River Canyon (downstream)
Organization: Little Riverkeeper
PFAS chemicals found:
PFBS — 2.3 ppt downstream
PFOA — 1.1 ppt downstream (275 times greater than lifetime health limit)
PFOS — 1.4 ppt downstream (70 times greater than lifetime health limit)

Main article image of Little River Canyon, courtesy of Angie Shugart.

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