© 2022 Lakeshore Public Radio
8625 Indiana Place
Merrillville, IN 46410
Northwest Indiana - WLPR 89.1 FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Study finds toxic PFAS throughout the Ohio River

A barge floating down the Ohio River at sunset near Madison.
FILE PHOTO: Justin Hicks
IPB News
A barge floating down the Ohio River at sunset near Madison.

PFAS have been found throughout the Ohio River. That’s according to a recent study from the watch dog group the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, also known as ORSANCO.

PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals that have been linked to cancer, immune system problems, and developmental issues in children. They’ve been found in everything from carpets, to fast food wrappers, to firefighting foams on military bases — like Grissom Air Reserve Base near Kokomo.

ORSANCO executive director Richard Harrison said we’re still learning a lot about PFAS. Knowing what the levels are like in the river now will help states and other stakeholders as they work to address the problem in the U.S.

“There really wasn't a lot of holistic information available for the Ohio River. And so this effort allowed us to establish a baseline for it and hopefully something that can be repeated in the future," Harrison said.

READ MORE: PFAS are more toxic than we thought. EPA sets news, temporary health guidelines

Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on statewide issues, including this series on climate change and solutions.

ORSANCO found PFAS in all of the 22 sites it tested — including six near Indiana. Some of those levels were higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency now recommends for certain kinds of PFAS in treated drinking water.

It’s not clear yet what these levels would mean in rivers and other untreated surface waters. Harrison said the EPA could draft standards for PFAS in streams in 2024.

Several cities along the river get their water from the Ohio — including Evansville.

Lane Young is the executive director of the Evansville Water and Sewer Utility. He said he supports the EPA’s crackdown on PFAS because it will put pressure on industries that use those chemicals.

“There will be more stringent requirements of them and what they put back into the source water. And so that ultimately will help mitigate this," Young said.

Young said the EPA's guidance on PFAS levels also comes at the right time — just as the utility is designing a new treatment plant, which could filter out more PFAS.

The EPA is working on official limits for certain PFAS in drinking water. Young said the utility is waiting to hear what those will be before deciding which technology to treat PFAS should be used at the new plant.

Right now, the EPA's health advisory for those PFAS — which isn't enforceable — puts safe levels below what some scientific instruments can detect.

So far, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has found PFAS in the finished drinking water at 10 utilities in the state. IDEM plans to test larger utilities next year.

The EPA announced it will make $1 billion available for communities looking to address PFAS pollution.

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.