Toxic chemicals in many household items are present in Orange County groundwater sources, potentially exposing residents to pollutants that can cause cancer or reduce immune systems.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, exposure to polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or “Forever Chemicals”, through drinking water can cause increased cholesterol levels, weakened immune systems, decreased vaccine response in children, and increased risk of testicular and kidney cancers.

PFAS contamination is a threat to Orange County drinking water, and it has caused over 60 wells to shut down in the last two years, according to the Orange County Water District.

OC Water District officials say that during well shutdowns, water retailers temporarily increased non-impacted wells and supplemented with more expensive imported surface water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

An analysis by the OC Water District found these shutdowns are estimated to inflict $1 billion over the next 30 years on local water providers, residents, and water retailers, a cost that is expected to increase.

Editor’s Note: This story series was produced by Chapman University journalism students working with the VOC Collegiate News Service.

The idea for the series was sparked by the fall oil spill off Orange County’s coast. But it also goes further — examining the seen and unseen pollution across the local environment — in drinking water sources, ocean waters, on land and in the air. We hope with this series to give residents balanced and informative stories that people can use to be empowered in the community. If you have questions, comments and story ideas please contact Sonya Quick, digital editor at Voice of OC and Chapman adjunct professor.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS chemicals are essential ingredients of many household and industrial products such as cosmetics, nonstick cookware, cleaning products, and waterproof clothing, and have been a part of man-made production since the 1940s.

“Forever chemical” pollution has been seen across the state, prompting California water boards to begin setting maximum contaminant standards, reports CalMatters.

The Road to Safe Drinking Water

The California State Water Resources Control Board currently attempts to regulate two of the most threatening PFAS chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS.

Some public water wells still do not treat or take contaminated water sources offline after being notified when they surpass these levels, according to the waterboard’s well database. OC Water District officials say this does not happen in Orange County.

The first step in setting an enforceable threshold for PFAS chemicals in drinking water is to set a Public Health Goal and the final step is setting a Maximum Containment Level.

According to Jeff O’Keefe, chief of the Southern California Section of the State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Drinking Water, said that only a Maximum Contaminant Level can mandate treatment of a source by the government. Maximum Contaminant Levels often take years to be set, O’Keefe said.

“A notification level is set at a level similar to how we would set an MCL [Maximum Contaminant Level], based on the health effects,” O’Keefe says. “But it doesn’t have to go through a regulation process. It’s a guidance level.”

When there is no regulatory process, local water districts aren’t legally required to treat contaminated water until a regulatory standard is established. 

So, when PFAS levels rise above a notification level, water districts are required to release a public notice that the contamination exists if the source is greater than the Response Level. OC Water District officials say this has not occurred in Orange County. 

When a response level is exceeded, water officials have to notify residents within 30 days and it is suggested that the wells take their service offline or provide treatment, O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe has regulatory oversight of local water districts in Southern California, specifically in Los Angeles County. He has been at the forefront of developing PFAS regulations in the state.

“Historically, California has always been on the leading edge. We don’t shy away from going beyond the federal requirements.”

Jeff O’Keefe, Chief of the Southern California Section of the State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Drinking Water

In California, such Maximum Contaminant Levels have been previously set for perclourade and 1,2,3-trichloropropane, two other cancer-causing chemicals.

Perchlorate is found in rocket propellant, explosives, fireworks and road flares, according to the FDA. Trichloropropane is found in industrial solvents and degreasers, according to the EPA.

The process for creating similar water regulation laws has just begun for PFAS, O’Keefe said.

Policy proposals regulating standards for water contamination go through a long, drawn-out process before being rolled out by regulatory agencies.

“We go through in a lot of detail, the kinds of analysis and scientific calculations that our folks make, to come up with a Public Health Goal, and we say this is the level that is associated with no cancer risk,” says Allan Hirsch, a spokesperson with the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

“And some of these other studies found all of these other effects on livers and kidneys, gas intestinal systems. This (PHG) is the level that is not associated with those kinds of noncancer effects.”

The request for creating a Maximum Contaminant Level has been made for PFOA and PFOS, and currently the Office of Environment Health is in the process of releasing a Public Health Goal for the toxic chemicals, says Hirsch.

After a Public Health Goal is officially released, a milestone that Hirsch anticipates his agency to reach by the end of 2022, the regulatory process returns to the State Water Resources Control Board. There, they must adopt a Maximum Contaminant Level that turns a Public Health Goal into law.

Where Are OC Residents Most at Risk?

There are many locations where PFAS chemicals can come into contact with Orange County’s drinking water supply, due to the fact that giant aqueducts transport surface water over hundreds of miles from their original source.

Water that is brought in from these aqueducts is from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, say OC Water District officials. The same officials say that PFAS have been detected in the basin, entering mostly from the Santa Ana River. Specifically, officials say that PFAS inputs include treated wastewater discharges and stormwater runoff from upstream communities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

This water sees multiple stages of treatment and interacts with other surface water sources along the way, said Oliver Pacifico, district engineer at the Santa Ana field office of the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water.

Based on the state water board’s water quality database, water quality also varies greatly within Orange County – even changing between neighborhoods at times. 

“One of the sources of PFAS is firefighting foam, especially for military installations and airports, and contamination is typically localized. However, we have not seen military installations and airports as a source of PFAS contamination affecting Orange County groundwater used for the public drinking water supply. Instead, PFAS contamination in Orange County wells appears to be from the Santa Ana River,” Pacifico said.

OC Water District officials say that PFAS in Orange County do not come from firefighting salt and instead stem from the Santa Ana River.

[Read: Whistleblowers Say a Santa Ana Sheet Metal Factory is Unsafe, Polluting Water]

Christopher Olivares, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Irvine, said researchers have been tracking wells surrounding the Los Angeles and Santa Ana Rivers and found some PFAS contamination hotspots around these surface water sources as well.

“I know that there is some kind of connection between surface water and these wells. That is where the PFAS was coming from,” says O’Keefe.

Anaheim has two wells that are within 1.5 miles of the Santa Ana River, according to the state water boards well database. 

According to O’Keefe, due to these wells’ proximity to the Santa Ana River, they have a higher likelihood of being contaminated by PFAS chemicals, like PFOS and PFOA.

According to data collected from the state water control board, both of these wells have been reporting PFOS and PFOA readings above the response levels.

OC Water District officials say that wells removed from service are often sampled, which requires them to be turned on and pumped but the extracted water is not put into the drinking water system. The test results are then sent to the state, even though the wells are not in service.

Orange and Anaheim Well’s that are both within 1.5 miles of the Santa Ana River show PFAS readings over the response levels.

Why Are We Still Drinking PFAS-Contaminated Water?

While Maximum Contaminant Levels aren’t yet being mandated by the state, the Orange County Water District has publicly committed to taking PFAS out of their water supply. 

“The State of California issues orders to water systems in terms of how vulnerable they are to PFAS contamination to regularly sample their sources,” Pacifico said. 

Pacifico also said water districts are often unable to meet the orders – which include sampling and treatment – because the process is too expensive.

OC Water District officials say that they have made significant investments in equipment, research and resources to treat PFAS.

Olivares at UC Irvine has been involved in research for the future of PFAS treatment in an effort to keep people from drinking contaminated water. 

“As you can imagine, running samples is very expensive. Depends on the lab, but it’s somewhere between $250 to $350 per sample. It is really a challenge both in the treatment, but also in how we measure them,” says Olivares.

Olivares conducted a large amount of his hydraulic engineering research at UC Berkeley prior to his work at UC Irvine, where he discovered new cleanup and prevention techniques that are being developed to function at larger scales. 

He said one of the hardest problems to solve has been finding a balance between the economic costs of a treatment and its effectiveness.

“A treatment process that has been very promising is called Advanced Reductive Processes, in which electrons are let loose in water and those electrons attack a PFAS molecule and break it apart. They use something called sulvative electrons.”

OC Water District officials say an advanced reductive process was launched in December 2019 to test 14 different types of treatment media, including granular activated carbon, ion exchange and novel alternative adsorbents to remove PFAS from water.

“Ultimately we are treating water, but it is indirectly public health. And directly protecting the community. So it is an approach that has been used for water treatment and I think will be very feasible for PFAS.”

Christopher Olivares, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Irvine

According to Olivares, the problem with these new Advanced Reductive Processes is the amount of energy required to complete them. 

In a region like Orange County where wells have recently closed, the energy required to commit to these new reductive processes aren’t there yet, he said.

“Treating electrons takes a lot of energy. You aren’t going to treat millions and millions of gallons of water,” says Olivares. “And then having to shut down 40 wells out of 200 that puts that added stress to an already stressed area here.”

Throughout his research, Olivares noted that some treatment techniques do not require as much energy as others.

“It is going to be more nuanced and tailored to each site even. Which is a challenge as well because it’s not like, okay well this is the solution that I can commercialize for every single PFAS requirement.”

OC Water District officials say that 35 PFAS treatment facilities are being designed and built in Orange County over the next two years, with four facilities online and operating.

How Long Until Orange County Water is Free of PFAs and PFOAs?

“Essentially, drinking water in Orange County does meet standards, but PFAS does not have a standard yet,” Pacifico said.

Setting the new Maximum Contaminant Level is just one part of developing a full fledged PFAS remediation process, he said, adding that the second step is replacing the old treatment facilities with new ones.

“There are several projects in the works, very large capital projects throughout Orange County to add treatment,” said O’Keefe, a state water board official.

The first of these new treatment plants started in Fullerton. 

Others around the county are currently under construction, including a well in the City of Orange.

Although the Orange County Water District has started construction on multiple advanced cleanup facilities, these new treatment plants still do not enforce Maximum Contaminant Levels for PFAS by state or federal law.

OC Water District officials say that the plants do remove PFOA and PFOS to non-detection levels.

This will not be the case until a final public health goal is sent off to the state water control board and they have finished developing a Maximum Contaminant Level based on the health goal.

“Our goal is to try and have a final PHG [Public Health Goal] for PFOA and PFAS, we would like to have it by the end of 2022. That is not an ironclad promise, we are just striving to do that if we can,” says Allan Hirsch with Office of Environmental Health.

Story written by Daniel Pearson. Story edited by Aleia Jacobs.


Correction: This story has been updated after publication to include several clarifications. The two chemical shortened titles are PFOS and PFOA, PFAS refers to the general group of chemicals. The $1 billion estimated impact is over the next 30 years, and is expected to increase. The first step to set an enforceable threshold for PFAS chemicals is a Public Health Goal, and the final step is a Maximum Containment Level. When PFAS levels rise above a notification level, water districts are required to release a public notice that the contamination exists if the source is greater than the Response Level. OC Water District officials say this has not occurred in Orange County. The request to set a maximum containment level is for PFOA and PFOS (not the PFAS group which is thousands of chemicals). Wells that have been taken offline for contamination are sometimes turned back on to test the water, with the expelled water not being put back into the drinking water system.

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