Tribune report shows six of 10 Illinoisans drinking tap water with toxic chemicals; Conte says chemicals found in Quincy but don’t pose serious threat

Water Treatment Plant

Recent testing by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found these chemicals in the drinking water at Quincy’s water treatment plant. "It's not like it's dangerous as in, ‘If you drink it once, you're going to get sick,’" said Jeffrey Conte, director of engineering and utilities for the city. | David Adam

QUINCY — A recent investigation by the Chicago Tribune says more than 8 million people in the state — 6 out of every 10 Illinoisans — are drinking tap water with toxic chemicals that build up in human blood, cause cancer and other diseases and take years to leave the body.

Recent testing by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found these chemicals in the drinking water at Quincy’s water treatment plant. Jeffrey Conte, director of engineering and utilities for the city, says those levels were slightly over “guidance limits” but do not pose a serious threat.

“The way the EPA will look at this for drinking water standards will be on the lifetime consumption of water,” Conte said. “It’s based on drinking a lot of water every day for 72 years, then there’s a statistical chance, like one out of 10,000 people, that a cancer or something will develop. It’s a lifetime accumulation of potential exposure. It’s not like it’s dangerous as in, ‘If you drink it once, you’re going to get sick.’ They’re saying that repeated exposure over our lifetime could cause some health deficiencies.

“If we can get (the chemicals) out of the water and reduce that minute chance, we’re going to do it. But it’s not an arm-waving emergency like, ‘Oh my God, let’s right now drop everything and do this.’ ”

Scientists call the chemicals per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — better known as PFAS. They are commonly known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment. The Illinois EPA didn’t begin testing the state’s water utilities for PFAS until August 2020.

The Tribune reported scientists are finding tiny concentrations of PFAS can trigger testicular and kidney cancer, birth defects, liver damage, impaired fertility, immune system disorders, high cholesterol and obesity. They suspect links to other diseases, in part because the chemicals disrupt albumin, a protein that carries hormones and vitamins through the bloodstream.

Forever chemicals end up in lakes, rivers and wells after flushing through sewage treatment plants and spreading from factory smokestacks. The chemicals also leach out of products such as carpets, clothing, cookware, cosmetics, dental floss, fast-food wrappers, firefighting foam, food packaging, microwave popcorn bags, paper plates, pizza boxes, rain jackets and ski wax.

“Right now, the only way really to break (forever chemicals) down is to incinerate them at very high temperatures,” Conte said. “They are just everywhere. The early compounds have been in production for years.

“Every time you cook with nonstick (cookware), you’re exposing yourself. It would seem to me you’ve got a lot more exposure if you’re actually putting your food on top of this. They’re used in fast-food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags because they’re really good grease blockers.”

The synthetic chemicals have been added for decades to products featuring brand names such as Scotchgard, Stainmaster and Teflon. 3M and DuPont have paid nearly $2 billion combined to settle PFAS-related lawsuits without accepting responsibility for contaminated drinking water or diseases suffered by people exposed to the chemicals.

“They affect every organ system in the body, at different times of your life, which makes them different than most other toxic substances,” Linda Birnbaum told the Tribune. She retired as director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences in 2019 after a 40-year career as a government scientist.

The PFAS found most frequently during water testing in Illinois are former Teflon and Scotchgard compounds: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).

The EPA has found concentrations of PFOS, ranging anywhere from 2.9 parts per trillion to 6.2 parts per trillion, in samples taken in Quincy on seven dates starting Aug. 3, 2021, to April 5, 2022. Conte said the EPA’s guidance limit is 14 parts per trillion.

Concentrations of PFOA, ranging anywhere from 2.6 parts per trillion to 4.3 parts per trillion, were found in samples taken in Quincy on seven dates during the same time frame. Conte said the EPA’s guidance limit is 2 parts per trillion.

“(The EPA hasn’t) decided yet what the ‘dangerous’ level it is yet,” Conte said. “So, they have these guidance limits that are non-enforceable standards. They’re supposed to give us what the allowable limits are going to be by the fall of 2023.”

Conte expects the water treatment plant in Quincy to adjust to reduce the amount of PFOA.

“It’s a minute amount, but it’s still over the guidance limit,” he said. “(PFAS) is just everywhere in the environment. For anyone to say that water is the only contributor is very misleading.”

The Chicago Tribune’s investigation included a computerized analysis of test results and a review of court documents, government records and scientific studies.

PFAS discovered in Quincy water samples

Source: Illinois Environmental Protection Agency

PFASCONCENTRATION (PPT)SAMPLE DATE
PERFLUOROBUTANESULFONIC ACID (PFBS)6.22022-04-05 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANE SULFONIC ACID (PFOS)5.82021-08-03 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANE SULFONIC ACID (PFOS)5.22022-01-18 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANE SULFONIC ACID (PFOS)4.42021-10-05 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANE SULFONIC ACID (PFOS)4.42021-10-06 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANOIC ACID (PFOA)4.32021-06-24 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANE SULFONIC ACID (PFOS)3.92021-11-20 00:00:00
PERFLUOROBUTANESULFONIC ACID (PFBS)3.32021-08-03 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANOIC ACID (PFOA)3.32021-08-03 00:00:00
PERFLUOROHEXANOIC ACID (PFHXA)3.12021-08-03 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANOIC ACID (PFOA)3.12022-04-05 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANOIC ACID (PFOA)32021-11-20 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANOIC ACID (PFOA)2.92021-10-05 00:00:00
PERFLUOROBUTANESULFONIC ACID (PFBS)2.92021-11-20 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANE SULFONIC ACID (PFOS)2.92022-04-05 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANOIC ACID (PFOA)2.82022-01-18 00:00:00
PERFLUOROCTANOIC ACID (PFOA)2.62021-10-06 00:00:00
PERFLUOROHEXANOIC ACID (PFHXA)2.62021-10-06 00:00:00
PERFLUOROBUTANESULFONIC ACID (PFBS)2.62022-01-18 00:00:00
PERFLUOROBUTANESULFONIC ACID (PFBS)2.52021-10-06 00:00:00
PERFLUOROBUTANESULFONIC ACID (PFBS)2.42021-10-05 00:00:00
PERFLUOROHEXANOIC ACID (PFHXA)2.32021-11-20 00:00:00
PERFLUOROHEXANOIC ACID (PFHXA)2.12021-10-05 00:00:00
PERFLUOROHEXANOIC ACID (PFHXA)2.12022-04-05 00:00:00
PERFLUOROHEXANOIC ACID (PFHXA)1.82022-01-18 00:00:00

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