Investigation into the possibility of man-made 'forever chemicals' Hampton Roads drinking water

What's in your drinking water?
Running water
Posted at 8:22 AM, Apr 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-21 20:25:39-04

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - It's always a debate: Bottled or tap water?

Folks in Hampton Roads News 3 talked with revealed their preference.

“I prefer tap water, but I have a Brita filter,” Norfolk resident Smiley Thomas said.

“I've always just been a fan of filtered water, bottled water,” Virginia Beach resident Colby Kestler said. “I don't really trust tap water.”

News 3's Investigative team is shedding light on what are called PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) chemicals in local drinking water supplies.

According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), PFAS chemicals are “man made,” industrially-produced compounds that have been around since the 1940s. VDH states there are more than 4,000 different PFAS chemicals.

“Our non-stick cookwares, our stain resistant textiles, carpets, personal care products, cleaners,” Dr. Tony Singh, VDH Office of Drinking Water Deputy Office Director told News 3.

Singh said these chemicals are known as "forever chemicals," and don't break down in the environment.

According to VDH, possible health effects related to being exposed to these chemicals include developmental effects during pregnancy, kidney and testicular cancers and immune effects.

“At first glance, it sounds like water that I would not want to drink,” Suffolk resident Tasheka Lawrence said.

Many in Hampton Roads we talked with have questions about these chemicals.

“I'd like to be a little bit more knowledgeable about it,” Kestler said.

Singh said VDH has been staying on top of PFAS chemicals since 2020.

Last summer, Singh said 63 samples were collected from 45 water systems in the Commonwealth. This included six water systems in Hampton Roads.

Of these six systems, only one location had PFAS above what's called "practical quantitation level,” which Singh mentioned is the lowest concentration of PFAS that can be measured with high accuracy.

That one location, Singh said, was the City of Newport News.

“We want to get ahead and explain to them what PFAS are,” Newport News Waterworks Director Yann Le Gouellec said.

Le Gouellec told News 3 they've been proactive when it comes to PFAS chemicals, being asked in 2013 by the EPA to monitor the chemicals.

“What's important is to find out what those chemicals are in the drinking water,” he said.

Le Gouellec said, to put into perspective as to how many PFAS chemicals are in their drinking water supply, imagine a teaspoon inside 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“It's very, very, very small to detect,” he said. “We are well below the health advisory standards.”

“The chemicals are a concern, and that's why the EPA is looking into that, but the levels where we are in the drinking water of Newport News, there's no concern to be having,” Le Gouellec said.

But News 3 wanted to know see how testing for drinking water in Newport News is done.

Newport News Waterworks allowed News 3 inside their secure facility, Hardwood’s Mill Water Treatment Plant, to see for ourselves.

“We, at the plant, have sample taps that will tell us this is the part of the treatment plant where you get it. We, in particular, have what we call the, ‘Finished water tap,” Le Gouellec said. “Typically, when we talk about finished waters, it's what the customer will see in the pipes going into their homes.”

Water quality manager Sherry Williams walked News 3 through what testing is like for PFAS chemicals.

“The contractual lab that we use sends us the bottles and the coolers, they already have the preservatives in them,” Williams said.

She added samples gathered at the plant are iced up and sent to a lab out of state for testing. They usually get results back about a month later.

“The finished water, we've doing quarterly,” Williams said. “We were doing it more frequently for the source waters. It really depends on the source. We were doing it weekly [and] now we've gotten a pretty good baseline.”

Newport News Waterworks also explained other proactive steps they're taking when it comes to getting the word out about these chemicals and in our drinking water.

“Typically, all we're required to have in a consumer confidence report is to report the regulated levels. We went the extra step because we want to make sure that our customers are informed about it, that it could be re-assured we are monitoring the situation closely and that the levels are very, very low,” Le Gouellec said.

Le Gouellec mentioned the goal is leveling off PFAS chemicals so more don't get into the supply while pinpointing the exact source of PFAS chemicals in Hampton Roads.

Click here for more News 3 Investigations.