Update (2/21/22): A discrepancy between test results conducted by the University of Pittsburgh and those conducted by the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County was the result of a technical issue in coding used to translate instrumental readings, according to researcher Carla Ng. Corrected results show that all sources tested well below maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS.

Reported 2/7/22: Along the railroad tracks that line the eastern banks of the Mon, residents of McKeesport’s 10th Ward gathered in the basement of the West Side United Methodist Church Thursday evening in hopes of gaining clarity on the safety of their drinking water.

Around 20 people showed up for their latest debrief in a saga that began in July 2021, when a fire at an auto body shop up the hill ignited concern that toxic ‘forever chemicals’ might have contaminated water supplied to homes in the 10th Ward. The chemicals have historically been used in firefighting foams to extinguish oil- and gas-fueled fires. 

Test results, presented Thursday by University of Pittsburgh researcher Carla Ng, revealed perfluorooctanoic acid [PFOA] in the water of some houses at levels exceeding Pennsylvania’s newly adjusted maximum contaminant level [MCL] for drinking water. 

Separate results presented by the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which supplies water to the 10th Ward, showed the same contaminants but put them well below the state threshold, authority representatives at the meeting said.

That left residents unsure about their drinking water.

“I left confused,” said Barb Girgash, who has had her water tested three times, twice by Ng and once by the Municipal Authority. “Their results are not matching,” she said. “So which one should I rely on?”

The 10th Ward’s worries come amid recent state and federal efforts to better regulate so-called PFAS, which include PFOA and PFOS. Last year, the EPA updated the agency’s Drinking Water Health Advisory for the two compounds to indicate that “some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero.”

“It sounds to me as if I still have to use filtered water if I want to be safe,” said Girgash.

Is there a safe level of PFAS?

PFAS, technically termed per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and colloquially dubbed ‘forever chemicals,’ are a class of widely used substances that take an extremely long time to break down. Exposure to some PFAS has been linked to decreased fertility, low birth weight and developmental effects in children, liver toxicity, thyroid and kidney disease, ulcerative colitis, reduced immune system function and a number of cancers. 

Last month, Pennsylvania amended the state’s safe drinking water standard to set maximum contaminant levels for two common and hazardous PFAS of primary concern in the 10th Ward: perfluorooctanoic acid [PFOA] and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid [PFOS]. 

Ng’s analysis showed PFOS to be uniformly below the Pennsylvania MCL at the 16 homes tested. PFOA levels, however, remain “at or above” the state standard at eight of the homes, said Ng. 

That’s a sharp decrease from testing conducted a year earlier, which indicates that the Municipal Authority’s efforts to flush the contaminants from the water distribution system have met some success. 

“PFOAs are the main concern now,” Ng told residents. 

Representatives of the Municipal Authority told residents that their own testing showed contaminants well below the state threshold. The disparity stems from different testing methods. The authority used a certified lab and an EPA-approved method for testing drinking water. The method Ng used is still in development by the EPA and is “supposed to be quite comprehensive,” she said. 

The EPA has yet to issue an enforceable MCL for PFOA and PFOS, but the agency plans to release those thresholds by the end of 2023. The agency advises that almost any amount of the two substances could cause health issues, and it’s beginning to disperse the first of $5 billion in federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to reduce PFAS contamination in communities facing disproportionate impacts.

Looking at the EPA’s new health advisory levels, said Ng, “there is an acknowledgment that these chemicals can be toxic at very low concentrations. We can’t afford any more releases of PFAS into the environment because, since they don’t break down, every kilogram we emit is going to add to that overall burden in our waterways.”

“I think this is a pretty big wakeup call for everyone that we need to stop emitting these chemicals,” she concluded.

Fighting PFAS with filters

“Not to downplay what’s happened in McKeesport, but the good thing is that this was a one-time accident that happened and led to a release into the drinking water system,” said Ng. “What it’s not is a long-term contamination that has occurred through dumping or releasing of these chemicals for decades … which leads to much higher levels in the water of other communities.”

After the fire, 10th Ward residents were told to immediately stop drinking and bathing in the water. Women for a Healthy Environment distributed ZeroWater filters, which are effective in removing PFAS, to residents in the affected area. The organization has continued to provide replacement filters and handed them out to residents at the meeting on Thursday.

“The agency you have is to filter your water,” Ng said at the meeting. In a later interview, she added that drinking water might not be residents’ main source of exposure to PFAS. If residents want to reduce their overall exposure, she said, they can probably do so by reconsidering the types of non-stick pans they use to cook, the kinds of products they use for cleaning and the types of containers they might use for a takeout dinner.

A resident of McKeesport’s 10th Ward picks up a replacement ZeroWater filter in the basement of West Side United Methodist Church on Feb. 2, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Some states have implemented take-back programs for Class B firefighting foams that contain PFAS. Pennsylvania has not, said Ng, adding that the state would benefit from a program that ensures Class B foams are not deployed in fires where they should not be used.

McKeesport Fire Chief Jeffrey Tomovcsik said the department hasn’t used Class B foam “since the ‘80s,” but noted that his company was not the only department that responded to the fire in July 2021.

Firefighters reportedly used about 120 gallons of chemical foam to douse the fire. The foam was brought to the scene from Pittsburgh International Airport where PFAS are a known concern.

At the meeting, Barb Girgash asked: “What is the water authority doing to make sure we have clean water?” 

Quarterly monitoring will be ongoing, said Municipal Authority Assistant Manager John Ashton. “Based on our test results, everything is below the MCL,” he later added. He emphasized that the water is safe to drink.

The Municipal Authority has found “very low levels” of PFOA and PFOS in its source water, said Ashton.

“What we’re looking at down the line, if levels of these compounds keep creeping up, is that all of our water utilities are going to have to add additional treatment, which probably means adding carbon filtration,” said Ng. “We also should be thinking about what this is going to do to our water bills.”

Moving forward, Ng hopes to conduct additional testing to determine if PFAS have contaminated the soil.

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@publicsource.org and on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.

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Quinn Glabicki is a writer and photographer covering climate and environment for PublicSource. He is also a Report for America corps member. Quinn uses visual and written mediums to tell stories about...