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Study: Trace Chemicals Remain Present in Water

Small amounts still detected, almost two years after fire in 10th Ward

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
February 06, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

(Source: University of Pittsburgh and Women for a Healthy Environment)

Trace amounts of chemicals used in firefighting foam can still be detected in the water supplies of lower 10th Ward residents, almost two years after a massive fire that destroyed a local auto-repair shop.

However, says Pitt researcher Carla Ng, the amounts of chemicals known as PFAS in the water are so small that they may not be the worst exposure most people face.

“It could be that your drinking water is not your main exposure to PFAS,” says Ng, an assistant professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering who is affiliated with the university’s Pittsburgh Collaboratory for Water Research, Education & Outreach. “You may want to cut the other products out of your life that may have an even bigger impact.”

And compared to the initial samples taken in 2021, Ng says, the level of chemical contamination in the water is substantially lower, which is good news. But traces of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonate, are still a concern.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also can be found in fast-food wrappers, microwave-popcorn bags, pizza boxes, candy wrappers, plastic water bottles, non-stick cookware, cleaning products, stain-resistant coatings for upholstery and carpets, and even personal care products, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

There is mounting scientific evidence that PFAS and related chemicals build up in human tissues and organs and remain there permanently. Over time, they have been linked to an increased risk of birth defects in children, health risks for pregnant women, decreased responses to vaccines, liver and kidney damage, and types of cancer.

The possible presence of PFAS, PFOA and PFOS in drinking water of city homes has been an ongoing concern since the July 2021 fire, says Ng, who is leading a two-year study, along with the non-profit group Women for a Healthy Environment, to determine the extent of exposure to the chemicals in Western Pennsylvania, including in McKeesport.

She presented an update on her research Thursday night during a meeting at West Side United Methodist Church.

About 25 people, including residents and city officials, attended.

“There is a general lack of trust in their water,” Ng says of 10th Ward residents. “I don’t think this is the only problem they’ve had.”

Pitt researchers have conducted two sampling campaigns of homes in the neighborhood. The good news is that of the most recent samples, taken in November and December 2022, only one home showed levels of PFOS above the maximum contaminant level, or MCL, permitted by the EPA. The sample was taken from a laundry sink.

For residents who want to know if it’s safe to drink the water, Ng says she can’t answer that.

“I’m not a doctor,” she says. “The levels that we measured were usually a little bit below the MCL. But health effects have been shown below that.”

Common water-filters available at major discount stores — especially those that combine activated carbon filters with an ion-exchange resin filter — are effective at removing most of the chemicals, Ng says.

But some residents aren’t using the filters either because they’re inconvenient, or because they can’t afford them, she says.

In July 2021, a fire sparked by downed electrical wires destroyed McKeesport Auto Body on Rebecca Street. Fueled by paint, chemicals and automotive products, the blaze required the efforts of hundreds of firefighters from dozens of volunteer and paid fire companies.

The next day, the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which provides water service to McKeesport and Port Vue, warned residents near the fire not to use their water for drinking or cooking, because firefighting foam used to smother the blaze had accidentally been sucked into the water supply, possibly through a fire hydrant.

A water advisory for some homes in 10th Ward was not entirely lifted for almost a month, after the authority flushed the system and tested the water repeatedly.

Water authority representatives also attended Thursday’s meeting. Ng says samples taken recently by MAWC show lower levels of PFAS and PFOS contamination than those taken by the Pitt team.

The Pitt researchers are using a slightly different method to sample water than MAWC, Ng says, adding that both methods are scientifically accepted. The team will use the MAWC method and compare its samples to see if they record the same results, she says.

The water authority last year filed suit in Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court against 3M Company, DuPont, Raytheon, Kidde and more than a dozen other companies, seeking to recover damages for the expense of flushing the water system and providing alternative sources of drinking water.

The case has since been moved to federal court in South Carolina. No trial date has been scheduled.

Researchers intend to continue their efforts in McKeesport and also will be sampling the soil around fire hydrants, to see if contamination is present there.

Ng says the team is actively recruiting people in McKeesport — including both the 10th Ward and the surrounding neighborhoods — who would like to participate in the study. Researchers also are collecting used water filters and testing them for residue from PFAS, PFOS and related chemicals.

Residents who provide a water filter for testing will receive a fresh one, Ng says.

To contact Ng, use the email address on her website.

Jason Togyer is volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. and editor of Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published February 06, 2023.

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