Forever chemicals contaminate Illinois’ private, municipal wells

Forever chemicals contaminate Illinois’ private, municipal wells

Testing during the past three years revealed nearly a million Illinoisans get their drinking water from municipal wells contaminated with toxic forever chemicals at levels exceeding state health guidelines.

Another 1.4 million people in the state depend on private wells, including scores in the Chicago suburbs. But there has been no systematic approach to determine if any of them are unknowingly ingesting chemicals that build up in human blood, cause cancer and other diseases and take years to leave the body.

As far as the state is concerned, it is up to individual well owners to decide if it’s worth spending $500 or so to test their water for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS.

In one of only three instances when local and state health officials have stepped in, they found it difficult to persuade well owners on the south side of Rockford to get their water tested for free, even after being told some of the highest PFAS concentrations in the state had been detected nearby.

“These are huge challenges we face in the modern world,” said Dr. Sandra Martell, administrator of the Winnebago County Health Department. “How do we ensure our communities have access to safe drinking water, and how do we get people to take steps to protect themselves?”

Nearly every American has PFAS in their bodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Babies are born with the chemicals in their blood.

Scientists are finding that tiny concentrations of some forever chemicals can trigger testicular and kidney cancer, birth defects, liver damage, impaired fertility, immune system disorders, high cholesterol and obesity. Links to breast cancer and other diseases are suspected.

Yet PFAS remain largely unregulated. Manufacturers, users and sewage treatment agencies are fighting to keep it that way.

Corporations and government agencies potentially responsible for contaminating water sources have spent the past year and a half lobbying against state regulations that would impose the first limits on six PFAS in groundwater throughout Illinois.

If enacted, the standards would open the door to legal action by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and private lawsuits intended to force the cleanup of contaminated sites and steps to ensure well owners have safe water.

Besides the Rockford neighborhood, several private wells are known to be contaminated in nearby Rockton, where PFAS-laden firefighting foam was sprayed after a 2021 explosion leveled a Chemtool lubricant factory.

Mike and Kacy Krause are among the Chemtool neighbors who were evacuated. Late last year, officials from the Illinois EPA and county health department knocked on the couple’s door and asked if they could collect water samples from their well.

The request wasn’t unusual, Mike Krause said. Shortly after moving in 20 years ago, he said, the Krauses discovered they had bought a house within a federal Superfund site, the government’s designation for the nation’s most polluted industrial properties.

The former Chemtool factory site in Rockton that was destroyed in a 2021 fire.

State officials have routinely tested wells in the Wright Kiles Blackhawk subdivision since the early 1980s after finding cancer-causing solvents in groundwater near a former Beloit Corp. factory that manufactured papermaking equipment. But last year was the first time the state came looking for PFAS.

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The Krauses and their neighbors got the results in April. For many, the news wasn’t good.

“It was just ridiculous,” said Mike Krause, a construction contractor.

Levels of one forever chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), were as high as 130 parts per trillion — 65 times higher than the 2 ppt limit proposed by the state.

The state’s proposed limit for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) is 7.7 ppt. Testing in the Blackhawk subdivision found levels nearly four times higher.

PFOS once was used widely in firefighting foam and PFOA sometimes was an unintentional byproduct of foam manufacturing. Levels of both chemicals were generally highest at homes on Watts Avenue close to the Chemtool site.

Mike Krause picks up some of the empty jugs he and his wife Kacy buy for drinking water, June 22, 2023, in Rockton. The Krauses, who live near the site of the 2021 Chemtool factory fire, now drink only bottled water after testing of their well water found toxic chemicals.

Mike Krause blames the company for the 12 ppt of PFOS and 5.5 ppt of PFOA the state found in his well. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where it came from,” he said, noting his family has sued Chemtool and has been drinking bottled water since being notified of the test results.

State and local officials aren’t so sure. The now-destroyed Chemtool factory was built on the site of the former Beloit Corp. facility, and groundwater in the area generally moves to the southwest, toward the Rock River and away from nearby homes, said Kyle Rominger, chief of the Illinois EPA’s land bureau.

“No clearly identifiable (PFAS) plume,” Rominger said. “No smoking gun.”

There could be other, still unknown sources. For decades, PFOA, PFOS and hundreds of related chemicals were (and some still are) used in industrial processes and in products such as carpets, clothing, cookware, cosmetics, dental floss, fast-food wrappers, food packaging, microwave popcorn bags, paper plates, pizza boxes, rain jackets and ski wax.

Results from testing in the Sandy Hollow area of Rockford were just as confounding.

The local health department asked state officials for assistance after the Illinois EPA found high levels of PFOA and PFOS in wells dug for the Family Manufactured Home Community near U.S. Route 20 and Illinois Route 251. As the health department went door to door reaching out to more than 50 nearby homes on private wells, the Illinois EPA sampled monitoring wells from the Southeast Rockford Groundwater Plume, another Superfund site.

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Like the Beloit Corp. site in Rockton, the one in Rockford has been in the Superfund program for decades. In 1990, about 200 homes and businesses accepted bottled water provided by the U.S. EPA to protect them from harmful solvents dumped by industries in the area, and the city later hooked up several hundred homes to the municipal water supply.

When the state tested for PFAS last year in the Superfund monitoring wells and in several remaining private wells, they found the highest levels were outside the plume of solvents. It is unclear at this point how forever chemicals seeped into the wells.

“It would be great to find a source and stop it right there,” said Martell, the Winnebago County health administrator. “For now we are going to have to deal with immediate action people can take, in particular when it comes to protecting young children who are more vulnerable because their bodies are still developing.”

“That means more people using water filters,” Martell added, “and eventually getting them connected to municipal sources of water.”

The Family Manufactured Home Community in Rockford on June 22, 2023. The Illinois EPA found high levels of PFOA and PFOS in wells dug for the development's wells.

State officials said there are no plans to test for PFAS in private wells near the 43 other Superfund sites in Illinois or near communities where forever chemicals have been detected in municipal wells. Without PFAS-specific regulations directing them to look for the chemicals in groundwater, state officials said, they have no legal authority to do so.

By contrast, Michigan had tested more than 6,000 private wells at least once by the end of last year. Officials in that state were among the first in the nation to address PFAS contamination after high levels of the chemicals were found near a former Air Force base and in residential wells close to a former tannery.

The Illinois Department of Public Health encouraged the state’s well owners to check its website to learn more about water filters certified to remove PFAS. The department also provides a list of laboratories approved to test for the chemicals.

Government action to protect Americans from PFAS has been slow-coming in part because chemical manufacturers kept secret what they knew about the dangers.

Documents unearthed during lawsuits show top executives at Minnesota-based 3M knew as early as the 1950s about the harmful effects of forever chemicals the conglomerate pioneered after World War II. 3M didn’t begin telling the U.S. EPA what it knew about PFOA and PFOS until 1998 — more than two decades after Congress approved the nation’s first chemical safety law.

Until this year the chief manufacturers, 3M and DuPont, had paid nearly $2 billion combined to settle PFAS-related lawsuits without accepting responsibility for contaminated drinking water or diseases suffered by people exposed to the chemicals. 3M has long maintained the chemicals are not harmful at levels typically found in people.

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On Thursday, 3M announced the company will pay at least another $10.3 billion to settle thousands of other claims accusing the company of contaminating public water systems with forever chemicals. DuPont and two other companies earlier said they had brokered a $1.19 billion settlement in the same cases, filed by cities and water systems across the nation and consolidated in a South Carolina federal court.

The money is expected to be paid out over time to test for and treat PFAS-contaminated water. 3M said earlier this year it will stop making the chemicals by 2025.

3M agreed in November to test private wells and public water systems near one of its PFAS manufacturing plants in Cordova, Illinois, where for decades it discharged the chemicals into the Mississippi River without limits about 15 miles upstream from the Quad Cities.

3M's Cordova chemical plant on the Mississippi River upstream from the Quad Cities, on Dec. 7, 2022. For decades the company dumped highly toxic PFAS chemicals into the river and contaminated hundreds of acres near the plant by spreading the plant's sewage sludge on land owned by 3M.

A Chicago Tribune investigation found the Illinois EPA knew more than a decade ago about PFAS-contaminated wells in and around the 3M plant. The state agency allowed 3M to enter a voluntary cleanup program and later signed off when the company said it was powerless to reduce its PFAS pollution, according to records and emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Tribune also identified more than 1,600 other potential sources of PFAS in Illinois through a national analysis of industry codes designating the type of products manufactured or used. Only California, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida have more facilities on the list of suspected polluters.

More than 60% of the Illinois facilities are in Chicago and its suburbs, the Tribune found. There is at least one potential industrial source in 85 of the state’s 102 counties, yet there are still no limits on the amount of PFAS pollution released into the air or discharged into sewers.

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Back in Rockton, the state found two PFAS in a municipal well but at concentrations well below health guidelines. Low concentrations of arsenic and radium also have been detected over the years.

The results prompted Dan Enderle, a teacher at the local high school, to install a reverse osmosis system in his home to remove any contaminants that pass through the municipal treatment plant.

“While the levels have been below legal requirements … we decided to invest in a filtration system,” said Enderle, who has lived in Rockton for 20 years and plans to stay.

Closer to Chicago, several residents on private wells in southwest suburban Homer Glen said they feel fortunate they installed reverse osmosis systems years ago at the same time their wells were dug into the local aquifer.

Joe Turrise, a retired Nabisco machinist, has had his own water treatment system since 1997. Back then the chief concern was taste, he said, but the system is even more appreciated since the dangers of PFAS and other contaminants became more widely understood.

“It is a little expensive when you consider you need to replace the filters at proper intervals,” Turrise said. “But you can’t put a price tag on good, clean water.”

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  • June 25, 2023