Tests find ‘forever chemicals’ in Chattahoochee, other Georgia rivers

The highest levels in the state were found in Northwest Georgia rivers
Rafters with Chattahoochee River Tubing enjoy tubing down the Chattahoochee River shown from the pedestrian bridge off of State Bridge Road Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Duluth, Ga.. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Rafters with Chattahoochee River Tubing enjoy tubing down the Chattahoochee River shown from the pedestrian bridge off of State Bridge Road Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Duluth, Ga.. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

So-called “forever chemicals” have been detected in several Georgia rivers, including the Chattahoochee, which serves as the primary source of drinking water for the city of Atlanta, according to a new report.

Forever chemicals, also known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances or their more common acronym, PFAS, do not break down in nature. The chemicals have been used for years in a host of products, from nonstick pans and clothing to carpets and food wrappers.

Several PFAS have been linked to serious health conditions, including cancers, immune system suppression, elevated cholesterol and decreased infant and fetal growth.

As part of the PFAS survey announced Tuesday, members of the Waterkeeper Alliance — a nonprofit coalition of more than 350 water protection groups in the U.S. and abroad — tested 114 waterways across 34 states and Washington.

The group took samples directly from rivers, not from purified drinking water. The group found that 83% of surface waters tested contained traces of least one PFAS.

Georgia tied for second with North Carolina for the most individual locations testing positive for PFAS with 18. Only Maryland turned up more sites with evidence of contamination.

In June, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper sampled the Chattahoochee River at the city of Atlanta’s drinking water intake and downstream at Riverview Landing in Cobb County. Testing of the sample detected the presence of 7 different PFAS compounds in the river.

Concentrations of the different chemicals found in the river ranged from 1 to 3 parts per trillion. Those levels are lower than other locations in Georgia and around the country.

“Given the number of people that live in the Chattahoochee River watershed and the number of industries present, it is not surprising that we detected the presence of PFAS in the river,” Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said in a statement. “CRK (Chattahoochee Riverkeeper) plans to collect more data from other parts of the watershed and conduct additional research to inform our advocacy to protect the Chattahoochee River and all the people who depend on the it.”

In response to the report, Schereé Rawles, a spokeswoman for Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, said the agency plans to commence testing for PFAS in its system in April 2023 as part of a federal data collection effort.

“We will report those findings once available,” Rawles added.

The city of Atlanta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Georgia, the highest PFAS concentrations were found in Northwest Georgia on the Conasauga River.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month on PFAS detected in rivers that supply drinking water to Rome, which has triggered lawsuits and spurred costly water system upgrades that have sent water bills soaring.

An aerial photograph taken on Tuesday, August 23, 2022shows a pump station (top) on the Oostanaula River, where the city of Rome used to draw most of its water supply. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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Residents of Rome and the city itself are suing chemical companies, carpet manufacturers and Dalton’s water utility, alleging that years of PFAS use by the flooring industry upstream has contaminated one of the two rivers that supply the city’s drinking water.

The Biden administration has made addressing “forever chemical” pollution a top priority.

In light of growing health concerns, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently cut the recommended drinking water levels for the two most-studied “forever chemicals” to near zero. The agency has said the move was driven by new research showing that negative health effects can occur from PFAS exposure at levels much lower than previously thought.

There are currently no federal drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals, but some states have begun enforcing their own limits, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office.

Most states — including Georgia — are among the 30 who have not taken action yet.

However, new federal rules that water utilities will need to comply with are expected soon.

Later this year, the EPA is expected to propose a national drinking water standard for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the two most-studied “forever chemicals” linked to a host of health conditions. The agency has said it hopes to finalize the rule by the end of 2023.