Baltimore’s water system, which serves 1.8 million homes and businesses in the city and Baltimore County, contains measurable levels of so-called “permanent chemicals” that the Environmental Protection Agency said last week pose health risks even at minute levels.
A chemical known as PFAS, used in firefighting foams and consumer products for its non-stick and stain-resistant properties, was found in the system at a concentration of 4.93 parts per trillion, according to a city Department of Public Works report.
This level is well below the previous health advisory threshold, and lower than the PFAS concentrations found at dozens of other sites around Maryland recently. But the Environmental Protection Agency said last week that any measurable level of PFAS chemicals — currently undetectable at levels below 4 parts per trillion, officials said — indicates that water utilities should increase monitoring of the material and explore technologies and strategies that could to reduce them.
In its annual Drinking Water Report, released Thursday, the Department of Public Works said, “There are no additional actions planned at this time” to address PFAS. The department said it expected the EPA to issue federal regulations “in the near future” that would require additional monitoring. Officials could not be contacted for further comments.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it was superseding previous health advice on PFAS stating that a concentration below 70 parts per trillion could be considered safe. The new standard, although still not enforceable, sets health risk thresholds for PFOS at concentrations close to zero, indicating that the chemicals pose health risks even at levels too low to be detected.
PFAS, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, is a group of thousands of compounds with chemical bonds so strong that they either do not break down, or degrade slowly, in the environment and remain in a person’s bloodstream indefinitely. They’re found in everything from nonstick frying pans to stain-resistant carpets to cosmetics to firefighting foam. They are associated with health risks including cancer and low birth weight.
As more is learned about the spread of chemicals and potential harm, some countries have moved to better monitor these substances and limit their use. Many states have set their own drinking water limits to address PFAS contamination that are stricter than federal guidelines. The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation this year to ban the use of PFAS in firefighting foams, food packaging paper products, and carpets and rugs.
The Maryland Department of Environment began monitoring PFAS in drinking water systems across the state in 2020 through an EPA grant, and released the results in a pair of reports in July and April.
In an initial phase of 129 water treatment plants serving 4.3 million Marylanders, 75% of samples had quantifiable levels of PFAS, including 21% at levels of 10 parts per trillion or more. Wells in Hampstead and Westminster in Carroll County recorded the highest levels found in the survey, about 240 parts per trillion, and were cut offline.
In a smaller survey of groundwater reservoirs around the state, more than half of the samples contained measurable PFAS.
The Baltimore Drinking Water Quality Report found no violations of any regulatory standards.
A lot has changed across the Baltimore area since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the ability of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works to provide safe, high-quality drinking water has remained consistent,” Jason Mitchell, director of public works, said in a press release.
The discovery of PFAS comes as the city’s Department of Public Works is already dealing with troubling failures at each of its wastewater treatment plants that have surfaced over the past year. Meanwhile, state environmental regulators have faced criticism from the Environmental Protection Agency for not hiring enough inspectors to ensure a healthy drinking water supply.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.