The Persistent PFAS Menace in Virginia’s Waters

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) pose an enduring threat to Virginia’s drinking water, a situation brought to the forefront by a plane crash over two decades ago. This incident at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore highlighted the indestructible nature of PFAS and set off a chain of events that continue to impact the state’s water quality.

On a clear day in October 1998, an experimental Learjet, caught in the act of testing a new tire, met with an accident that would have implications far beyond its immediate damage. The plane’s crash and the subsequent firefighting efforts introduced PFAS into the environment through the use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam. “Aircraft rescue firefighters arrived and pumped water on the inferno, but to little avail,” according to an FAA investigation. The intense blaze was eventually quelled, yet the real battle against an invisible contaminant had just begun.

The Discovery of PFAS in Chincoteague

Years after the incident, the quaint fishing village of Chincoteague, nestled a few miles from the crash site, discovered its water was tainted with PFAS. “You never really know when the end of it is going to be,” shared Hunter Leonard, a local firefighter, reflecting on the pervasive uncertainty the contamination brought. It was a 2017 water study that unveiled the widespread presence of toxic PFAS chemicals, exceeding EPA’s lifetime exposure guidelines.

The discovery of PFAS in Chincoteague’s water supply prompted a swift and costly response from both military and local town officials. Faced with the daunting task of purifying the water, the community invested in a $2.5 million water treatment system, operational by April 2021. This system was a significant step toward ensuring the safety and health of the town’s residents, providing them with clean, PFAS-free water.

Despite this progress, the long-term health effects of PFAS exposure linger as a source of concern among the community. “The uncertainty of the pollution’s long-term health effects still weighs on many of the town’s residents,” a sentiment that underscores the ongoing struggle to fully understand and mitigate the impact of these chemicals.

Across Virginia

The issue of PFAS contamination extends beyond Chincoteague, touching several communities across Virginia. From Richmond to Norfolk, elevated levels of these toxic substances have been found in drinking water sources, raising alarms about the potential health risks associated with exposure. These findings have galvanized new rounds of water testing and heightened awareness of the dangers posed by PFAS. “Several Virginia communities are starting to identify and address the potential threats of drinking water tainted with the same toxic chemicals found in that firefighting foam,” highlighting a growing concern that spans the entire commonwealth.

The revelation that the chemical industry, along with military, state, and federal agencies, had known about the dangers of PFAS for decades adds a layer of complexity to the issue. Despite this knowledge, the enactment of strong federal regulation has been slow. However, a turning point came on March 14, when the EPA announced its intention to regulate certain types of PFAS, signaling a potential shift toward more robust oversight and protection for communities affected by these contaminants.

Virginia’s proactive approach to PFAS testing, spurred by a $60,000 allocation from the state legislature in 2020, underscores the urgency and need for comprehensive action. This effort, while a step in the right direction, faces challenges due to the limited resources available to the two state agencies tasked with this monumental task—the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Quality. The financial burden of mitigation efforts, potentially lasting decades, looms large, highlighting the need for sustained commitment and funding to address the contamination.

The Science of PFAS

PFAS, known for their stability and resistance to degradation, have earned the moniker “forever chemicals.” Developed in the mid-20th century for their unique properties, these substances have found widespread use in a variety of applications, from fire suppression foams to consumer products like nonstick cookware and water-repellent clothing. This pervasiveness has led to PFAS infiltrating the environment and, by extension, water sources and human bodies, making their impact both ubiquitous and profound.

The collaboration between manufacturing giant 3M and the Navy in creating Aqueous Film Forming Foam, specifically designed to combat jet fuel fires, marked the beginning of PFAS’s widespread application in firefighting. This product’s effectiveness led to its adoption across military and civilian airports worldwide, inadvertently contributing to the environmental dispersion of PFAS. The routine discharge of PFAS-laden foam during fire suppression drills, particularly in areas like Hampton Roads, has had lasting repercussions on water quality, necessitating a reevaluation of firefighting practices and the materials used.

In light of the growing evidence of PFAS’s environmental and health impacts, the military’s decision to cease the use of PFAS-containing foam represents a significant policy shift. However, the legacy of past practices and the ongoing challenge of addressing PFAS contamination in water and soil underscore the complex, multifaceted nature of the issue. With potentially thousands of PFAS variants in existence, the task of mitigating their impact is daunting, necessitating concerted efforts across governmental, industrial, and community stakeholders.

The EPA’s establishment of nonbinding health advisories for PFOS and PFOA, two of the most well-known PFAS compounds, has provided a benchmark for assessing the safety of water supplies. However, the advisories’ non-enforceable nature and the subsequent lowering of safety thresholds highlight the evolving understanding of PFAS’s health risks and the need for enforceable standards. The proposal to regulate PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at levels that are detectable and actionable reflects a critical step toward protecting public health and ensuring the safety of drinking water across the nation.

Legal and Regulatory Framework

With the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the forefront, the United States is witnessing a pivotal moment in the regulation of PFAS chemicals. The EPA’s recent proposal to regulate the levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at 4 parts per trillion marks a significant stride towards establishing enforceable standards. This move, grounded in the “best available science,” as stated by EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, aims to provide states with the necessary guidance to protect their communities. The potential of this regulation to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses underscores the critical nature of the EPA’s initiative in safeguarding public health from these pervasive contaminants.

Virginia’s own efforts to tackle PFAS pollution echo the growing national urgency. The state’s recent initiative to conduct more extensive PFAS testing, fueled by a legislative allocation of $60,000, represents a proactive approach to understanding and mitigating the risks posed by these chemicals. Despite being a commendable start, environmentalists argue that this funding falls short of the level needed to comprehensively address the contamination. The challenge of balancing resource constraints with the need for effective mitigation underscores the complexities involved in confronting PFAS pollution at the state level.

Local Communities’ Struggle

The story of Boun Keosavang, a resident living near the Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake, Virginia, personifies the direct human impact of PFAS contamination. Keosavang’s reliance on bottled water and a Navy-installed water filtration system highlights the tangible consequences of PFAS pollution on individual lives. The Navy’s acknowledgment of PFAS as an environmental hazard, particularly at airfields and auxiliary landing sites, has led to measures such as supplying affected households with bottled water and installing carbon filters. Yet, the ongoing need for such interventions points to the broader challenge of ensuring safe drinking water in the face of persistent PFAS contamination.

The dilemma faced by Virginia residents using well water further illustrates the widespread nature of PFAS pollution. With more than 1 million households depending on private wells, the lack of regulation for these water sources leaves many vulnerable to contamination. The efforts by Virginia Tech researchers to test wells across the state and provide residents with clear information on the safety of their water supply represent an important step towards addressing this issue. However, the discovery of elevated PFAS levels in some wells underscores the pervasive reach of these chemicals and the need for continued vigilance and action.

Heavy Future Costs and Uncertain Funding

The financial implications of addressing PFAS contamination are staggering, with costs encompassing everything from infrastructure investments to ongoing water treatment expenses. The case of Chincoteague, where a new water treatment system was necessary to remove PFAS from the town’s water supply, exemplifies the economic burden faced by communities grappling with pollution. With an annual maintenance cost of approximately $400,000, the financial sustainability of such systems is a pressing concern.

Congress’s inclusion of $10 billion in funding to combat PFAS contamination offers a glimmer of hope, with half of this funding earmarked for grants to small or disadvantaged communities. Virginia’s expected receipt of about $12.5 million annually for water infrastructure improvements highlights the role of federal support in tackling PFAS pollution. Yet, the allocation falls short of fully addressing the needs of all affected communities, emphasizing the gap between available resources and the scale of the problem.

The journey of communities like Chincoteague, from the discovery of PFAS contamination to the implementation of solutions, reflects the resilience and determination required to secure clean water for all. The collective efforts of local, state, and federal entities, alongside the engagement of affected communities, form the cornerstone of the ongoing battle against PFAS pollution. As Virginia and the nation move forward, the experiences of these communities will undoubtedly shape the strategies and policies needed to ensure a future where clean and safe drinking water is a reality for everyone.

Addressing PFAS Contamination

The battle against PFAS contamination is far from over. With communities across Virginia and the United States grappling with these pollutants, the path forward requires a multifaceted approach. This involves not only stringent regulatory measures and comprehensive monitoring but also the adoption of advanced water treatment technologies. As we look towards the future, the importance of sustainable, effective solutions to purify water and safeguard public health cannot be overstated.

As technological solutions like RO filtration and water conditioners emerge as key tools in combating PFAS pollution, the role of policy cannot be understated. Legislation that supports the adoption of advanced water treatment technologies, along with funding for research into new methods of PFAS removal, will be critical. Furthermore, public awareness and advocacy will continue to drive action at the local, state, and federal levels, ensuring that the issue of PFAS contamination remains a priority in public health and environmental protection efforts.

The journey from recognizing the threat of PFAS in Virginia’s water supply to implementing solutions that ensure safe, clean drinking water for all is a testament to the resilience and determination of affected communities. However, this journey is far from complete. As we move forward, the collective efforts of individuals, communities, policymakers, and researchers will be paramount in overcoming the challenges posed by PFAS. By embracing innovative technologies and advocating for strong regulatory frameworks, we can protect our water, our health, and our environment for generations to come.




A Promising Solution

One of the most promising technologies in the fight against PFAS contamination is reverse osmosis (RO) filtration. RO systems work by forcing water through a semi-permeable membrane, effectively removing contaminants as small as PFAS molecules. This process has proven to be one of the most effective means of reducing PFAS levels in drinking water, offering a beacon of hope for affected communities. By installing RO systems at the point of use or within larger municipal water treatment frameworks, we can significantly mitigate the risks associated with PFAS exposure.

In addition to RO filtration, whole-home water conditioners present another layer of defense against a range of water quality issues, including hardness and certain chemical contaminants. While not specifically designed to target PFAS, these systems can improve overall water quality, making them a valuable component of a comprehensive water treatment strategy. When combined with RO filtration, whole-home conditioners can ensure that water is not only free from PFAS but also from other impurities that can affect health and home appliances.