State tightens contamination levels; SCV Water sets up testing

The Rio Vista Water Treatment Plant at SCV Water. photo courtesy SCV Water.

SCV Water Agency officials are expected to begin testing their wells for smaller amounts of a non-stick chemical suspected of being carcinogenic, after state officials announced Friday they were lowering the allowable levels set for that chemical.

Over the last few months, the State Water Resources Control Board has been trying to figure out what constitutes a safe level for a chemical called PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water, since one of its component chemicals is a suspected carcinogen.

Although there are many industrial uses for PFAS, it’s perhaps most commonly known as the non-stick component that went into making Teflon useful in non-stick pans.

State water officials have agreed on what those safety levels are.

On Friday, the State Water Resources Control Board announced updated guidelines for local water agencies to follow in detecting and reporting the presence of the two chemicals in drinking water that make up PFAS — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).

Well shut down

In June, SCV Water shut down one of its wells after tests for PFAS exceeded the response level — a level set by the state calling for the removal of a drinking water source.

In May, as part of its quarterly sampling required by the State Water Resources Control Board — Division of Drinking Water, or DDW — SCV Water sampled 15 wells for PFAS chemicals.

Of the wells tested, eight were above the interim notification levels set by DDW.  A notification level is one set lower than the one requiring action.

If a contaminant detected in water sampling exceeds the notification level, water officials are bound by law to notify responsible agencies which, in this case, would be the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Santa Clarita City Council and the SCV Water board.

With these new levels, three additional wells — for a total of 11 wells — would fall within the notification levels.

The updated state guidelines lower the current notification level from 14 parts per trillion to 5.1 ppt for PFOA and from 13 ppt to 6.5 ppt for PFOS.

New guidelines

“These new guidelines would apply to all SCV Water wells tested moving forward,” Kathie Martin, spokeswoman for the SCV Water Agency, announced in a news release issued Friday.

“Under these levels, an additional three wells would fall within notification levels, added to the eight identified during the first round of sampling in May,” Martin said.

One well was removed from service in May when it exceeded DDW’s interim response level of a combined 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA, Martin said.

SCV Water heads expect stricter guidelines will be set for response levels as they were for notification levels.

“The response level is expected to be reviewed by the (state) board this fall,” she said.

In an effort to put “parts per trillion” in context, she explained Friday: “For perspective, one part per trillion is a microscopic measurement for something in the water or air and would be equal to four grains of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

The stricter state guidelines are all in response to increasing awareness these past couple of years about the adverse effects of these non-stick chemicals.

Health concerns

Studies indicate that both PFOA and PFOS can have reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, thyroid and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both sets of chemicals have caused tumors in animals.

With regards to humans, studies show increased cholesterol levels, liver enzymes and uric acid among exposed populations with more limited findings related to:

  • Decreased infant birth weights.
  • Negative effects on the immune system, including decreased response to vaccinations.
  • Cancer, for PFOA chemicals.

The PFAS family of chemical was widely manufactured in the U.S. between 1950 and 2015, and are primarily used in industrial and consumer products to repel grease, moisture, oil, water and stains.

“While we did not find more PFAS in our water, today’s new requirements from the State Water Resources Control Board have established  lower notification levels for all California water agencies,” SCV Water’s General Manager Matt Stone said Friday.

“Our customers come first, and we continue to vigilantly monitor our water quality and implement new strategies as needed to safeguard our water supply,” he said.

Notification levels are a nonregulatory, precautionary health-based measure for concentrations in drinking water that warrant notification and further monitoring and assessment. 

Notification levels

When SCV Water samples water that is above the notification level, it is reported to the State Water Board, as well as the SCV Water governing board, the Santa Clarita City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Because of these changes, SCV Water has started evaluating treatment options to remove the harmful non-stick chemicals and has created a staff-led team dedicated to developing a plan to address the issue.

SCV Water is one of more than 200 water systems and more than 612 groundwater wells in California required to sample for PFAS and PFOA chemicals this year.

Water staffers are expected to continue sampling all of the agency’s 44 groundwater wells. 

In the interim, SCV Water will adjust its systems’ operations and will rely on its diverse water supply portfolio, including imported and banked water sources, in order to minimize any supply impacts to its customers. Additionally, SCV Water encourages customers to  continue to use water efficiently in their homes and on their landscapes.

Non-stick chemicals

The PFOS and PFOA chemicals enter the environment through treated wastewater discharge, landfills and areas where the substances were used outdoors. 

These chemicals have been used in firefighting foams at airports for fire training and response and have also been used in many consumer products that end up in landfills.

Meanwhile, the State Water Board is conducting a statewide assessment to determine the scope of contamination by PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS, in water systems and groundwater.

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