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Cleaning the water won’t eliminate health risks for West Morgan East Lawrence customers

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MORGAN AND LAWRENCE COUNTIES, Ala. (WHNT) - Filtering contaminants out of the West Morgan East Lawrence  Water Authority's water is a good start, but it doesn't eliminate the long-term health effects of exposure to PFOA and PFOS.

Those health effects, along with a reduction in the advisory level that comes from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), led West Morgan East Lawrence (WMEL) officials to urge customers not to drink their tap water. PFOA and PFOS were detected in finished drinking samples that go out to homes. The chemicals, which have been linked to numerous kinds of cancers and other health ailments, get dumped into the Tennessee River by manufacturers. WMEL is looking for a solution to remove them from their drinking water.

Even if tests do come back clean from the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority, the production history of companies along the Tennessee River suggests the issue of PFOA and PFOS exposure isn't new for people who live here.

Dr. Jamie DeWitt got her doctorate studying the health effects of PFOA and PFOS. She notes of the current situation, "In all likelihood, they've probably been exposed for years, if not decades."

Concern continues for people like DeWitt and Dave Engel, an environmental attorney who has represented people with negative health impacts from PFOA and PFOS exposure.

He cites the C8 health panel, which studied 69,000 exposed people in the West Virginia area to track health impacts. He notes, "They concluded there was a connection between exposure to this stuff and testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis."

Reducing new exposure is important, but it doesn't instantly relieve health risks.

Think about a bucket of water. If you drop an ice-cube in there, it will melt. But it takes time. That ice-cube functions just like PFOA in the body. The PFOA eventually passes, but it takes time.

If you keep adding more ice, it builds up faster than it can melt away.

"In humans," DeWitt points out about the contaminants, "we think that these have a half-life of about five years, so if you have a hundred parts-per-million in your blood, it takes five years for it to reduce by half."

Engel adds, "Once it's in your system, it basically stays there. It bio-accumulates. It tends to be more persistent in men than in women, for a number of physiological reasons. But at the end of the day, on average, if you take in a certain amount today, it's going to take you about four-and-a-half years to get rid of half of it."

"But if you're getting constant exposure," Engel emphasizes, "it just keeps building up and building up."

Reducing exposure is the best thing you can do to reduce risk.

But you should remain vigilant for health effects even once the exposure risk passes.