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Some Hawaii Residents Use Bottled Water Due To ‘Forever Chemicals’ In Wells


About 650 Hawaiians have relied on bottled water since March after the state’s health department detected synthetic chemicals, known as PFAS, in the local water system.

The contamination dates back to at least October, when Hawaii’s Department of Health detected the chemicals in one of two wells that serve Kunia Village, an affordable housing project. on O’ahu.

The department announced in January that the levels detected exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limit for two types of PFAS – known as PFOA and PFOS – in drinking water, as well as the limit for the state of Hawaii. above which communities should treat their water systems or provide an alternative source. However, the concentration is below the current EPA limit.

Kunia Village stopped using the contaminated well after that. Then, in early March, the water system operator began distributing bottled water to residents, fearing the second well could also be contaminated, which health department tests confirmed last week. .

Residents have been instructed to use bottled water for drinking or brushing teeth and tap water for washing hands, doing laundry or taking baths.

“We just felt it was important to act quickly and cautiously,” said Stephanie Whalen, president of the Kunia Water Association.

PFAS stand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, but they are more often called “eternal chemicals” because they are almost impossible to destroy and can therefore persist permanently in air, water and soil.

The class of chemicals is associated with health consequences, including low birth weight, high cholesterol and thyroid disease. PFOA, in particular, has been associated with an increased risk of kidney cancer. A study published last year found that exposure to high levels of PFOS was associated with an increased risk of liver cancer.

PFAS are used in the manufacture of consumer products such as food packaging, cosmetics and textiles due to their ability to resist stains, grease and water. They are also found at some military sites due to the use of PFAS-based firefighting foam dating back to the 1970s. The military still uses the foam to respond to emergencies, but has discontinued its use for testing and training.

PFAS contamination is common

PFAS contamination in water is widespread in the United States. The Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization focused on toxic chemicals, told NBC News that at least 1,500 sites would violate the EPA’s proposed limits for drinking water – 4 parts per trillion. – which the agency hopes to finalize by the end of this year.

The EPA, meanwhile, said in March that up to 6,300 water systems — serving up to 94 million people — contain levels of PFAS above proposed limits.

“There are very few places where we have looked for PFAS and not found it,” said Jamie DeWitt, a toxicology professor at East Carolina University, who reviewed water sampling results from Kunia Village. . “It’s just a testament to their ubiquity in the environment.”

But Kunia levels are higher than average background concentrations found across the country, according to Anna Reade, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

“It’s a pretty alarming level they’re getting to,” Reade said.

In a well in the village of Kunia, PFOA levels were double the limit proposed by the EPA, and PFOS levels were up to 3.5 times higher. In the other, PFOA levels were about five to seven times higher than the proposed threshold, and PFOS levels were at least 11 times higher.

“It hits all the marks of being too contaminated for people to drink safely,” Reade said.

More water systems are starting to test for PFAS

Hawaii’s health department said it tested small water systems located near likely PFAS hotspots — such as industrial or military sites — with the help of EPA grants.

The village of Kunia is one such site, the department said, but added that it did not know how long PFAS had been present in water in the area before testing in October.

Kunia Village in 2017.
Kunia Village in 2017.Kristen Wong / US Army

“The main concern is that people have been using it for many, many years, even decades,” DeWitt said.

However, testing for PFAS is becoming more common: The Safe Drinking Water Act requires large public water systems – and some medium and small – to detect chemicals through 2025 and report the results until the following year.

The type of monitoring Hawaii does is voluntary, Reade said, but over the next few years “we’ll get a little more information about what we’re up against in our drinking water.”

Individual water systems react to high levels of PFAS in different ways. Some provide bottled water temporarily, but Reade said many also use long-term solutions like connecting to a new water source or installing a specialized treatment system.

However, it may take some time for communities to decide or implement such solutions. The city of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, for example, is still weighing its options more than a year after high levels of PFAS were detected in its water.

Hawaii’s PFAS problem may stem from military activity

The source of the contamination in Kunia village has not been identified, but the health department said the PFAS compounds detected appear to be consistent with those from other sites with known fire-fighting foam contamination.

DeWitt also said that in the case of Kunia Village, “it appears the sources are military sources, as opposed to an industrial source or a landfill.”

The health department said it was waiting for the military, which owns one of the wells, to provide more information.

The US Army Garrison in Hawaii said it does not know the source of the contamination, but is investigating whether materials containing PFAS may have been stored, used or released at nearby military sites. .

In April, Whalen said, the village of Kunia started running water from a different source into the water pipe to clear the contamination. He is awaiting more recent test results.

“These results come back clean, great. We’ll stop bottled water. They don’t, so we’re continuing bottled water,” Whalen said.

Low levels of PFAS have also been detected in several water systems in Honolulu this year. Reade said that’s not surprising given the state’s history of military activity.

“I think that’s unfortunately going to be a problem that Hawaii has to deal with beyond a few wells,” she said.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.