Alabama has no-swim, fish consumption advisories for same chemicals that caused water warning

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DECATUR, Ala. (WHNT) – The recent health advisory for drinking by the EPA has set off a chain reaction in North Alabama, with one water system advising customers not to drink its water and Gov. Robert Bentley insisting there is no crisis.

But the state also has no-swim and fish consumption limits in the near the area where the water system draws its water from the Tennessee River, according to a lawsuit filed by the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority against 3M, Daikin America, and Dyneon.

The lawsuit alleges the companies used the chemicals and released them into the water, contaminating its water supply.

The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority was found to have concentrations of the chemicals PFOA and PFOS in its water up to three times higher than the 70 parts per trillion now recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The chemicals were made by 3M, which has a plant in Decatur, for many years, before being phased out in 2002. They were used in Scotchguard and a number of other consumer products. The chemicals don’t break down in water and can lodge in the tissue of humans and animals.

The EPA guidelines, released last month, cite a number of possible health effects linked to the lifetime advisory.  The agency cited study results involving animals and humans.

“These studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).

But the EPA’s health advisory regarding PFOA and PFOS is not a regulation and has no enforcement mechanism. The agency began addressing concerns about the chemicals in 2000, when it negotiated an agreement with 3M to discontinue production of PFOS.

The guidelines, echoed by the Alabama Department of Public Health, also say, “consumers may consider to reduce risk such as seeking an alternative drinking water source, or in the case of parents of formula-fed infants, using formula that does not require adding water.”

The water system advised consumers not to drink its water, leading to confusion, some water systems moving to new providers, primarily Decatur Utilities and donations of drinking water to residents served by the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority.

Bentley and other state officials have emphasized the water is safe to drink and is only identified as presenting a possible health risk for young mothers and pregnant women.

But the state agencies Bentley said he consulted with on Friday are also sending a different message regarding the chemicals PFOS and PFOA.

The Alabama Department of Public Health issued a warning in 2012 that people should not consume any fish from Baker’s Creek off Wheeler Reservoir, because of the presence of PFOS and PFOA.

The most recent fish advisory has been updated, advising that one largemouth bass a month can be consumed from the same area. A 3M spokesman said the change in the advisory shows the chemical presence has come down.

Leaders from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management also met with Bentley on Friday. ADEM’s list of distressed waterways in the state includes a no-swim advisory for the same area, Wheeler Lake at Baker’s Creek, because of the presence of PFOS.

ADEM is also part of an agreement with 3M where the company has been engaged in cleaning up PFOA and PFOS from the soil at its Decatur site since 2006.  3M provided a description of the effort in Decatur to WHNT News 19.

“Soil is being removed and treated, and a protective liner is being installed in various sections of the acreage surrounding our local facility. A protective soil cover is being installed to contain the chemicals and their movement in soil or groundwater. This project began in 2006 and will continue through 2019.

“3M has installed monitoring wells and coordinated the cleaning of area ponds. 3M is also participating in a PFC ‘source reduction program’ that involves the removal of certain buildings where PFCs were manufactured, and the cleaning of tanks and inactive piping.”

The company said the work is part of its efforts to research and remediate the chemicals.

“Our company has voluntarily undertaken numerous projects to help reduce the potential release of these materials into the local environment,” says Robin Higgs, acting manager of 3M’s Decatur plant. “We have made substantial progress and will continue our efforts in this area.”