State officials say elevated levels of PFAS found in Chickahominy watershed

Newport News Waterworks say levels detected are far below federal health advisory limit

By: - October 28, 2021 3:26 pm


State officials said Thursday that Newport News Waterworks had detected “elevated” levels of a group of chemicals known as PFAS in waterways in the Chickahominy River watershed from which the utility sources water. 

PFAS, an abbreviation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are synthetic chemicals used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products including food packaging, non-stick cookware, firefighting foam and water-repellent clothing. They are often called “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly and can accumulate in the human body and environment.

Exposure to high levels of certain PFAS has been linked to a range of adverse health outcomes, such as decreased fertility, developmental effects and increased risk of some cancers, although research into these chemicals is ongoing. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that combined levels of two types of common PFAS not exceed 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. This recommendation, however, is not enforceable.  

According to Newport News Waterworks, both of those types of PFAS have been detected in the system’s treated water, but “at levels an order of magnitude below the health advisory limit.” 

Testing results provided by the utility show the highest total level of these PFAS as 10 parts per trillion in May 2020. 

Newport News Waterworks “has assured residents that the water it provides to its customers is safe to drink and has consistently shown PFAS levels well below the lifetime health advisory from” the EPA, a press release from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and Virginia Department of Health said. 

Samples were collected approximately 20 miles upstream of Walker’s Dam in the White Oak Swamp watershed. 

A new release from Newport News Waterworks said that there have been no industrial PFAS manufacturers in the watersheds of the system’s reservoirs. 

PFAS pollution has become an increasing concern for health and environmental regulators at both the federal and state level. 

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a law sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, that directed the state commissioner of health to convene a work group to study the occurrence of various PFAS in Virginia’s drinking water. The bill also called for VDH to sample up to 50 water sources and waterworks and offered the group the opportunity to develop recommendations for specific maximum contaminant levels of PFAS. 

A report on the group’s findings is due to Gov. Ralph Northam and House and Senate committee leaders Dec. 1. 

Another 2020 law, introduced by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, called for the state Board of Health to establish maximum contaminant levels in waterworks and water supplies for a range of substances including PFAS. That law will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2022. 

On the federal level, President Joseph Biden’s administration has made PFAS regulation one of the EPA’s top priorities. Last week, the agency rolled out a roadmap for dealing with the chemicals that among other efforts will require PFAS manufacturers to provide the federal government with toxicity data and will establish timelines to set enforceable drinking water limits. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.