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What to know about PFAs, 'forever chemicals,' in drinking water


State health officials are still investigating how trace amounts of toxic chemicals got into drinking water in Kunia Village. The well used to be owned by the Del Monte Plantation. Now, there are some 600 O'ahu residents on that water system.

The contaminants are toxic PFAs, so-called “forever chemicals” because they linger in the environment.

PFAs are water-repellent chemicals typically found in household items such as stain-proof fabric and nonstick pans. They also occur in firefighting foam often found near airports and military installations.

Dr. Diana Felton, the state toxicologist, is part of a team investigating those chemicals in landfills and wastewater — part of a growing national problem.

"These chemicals are really ubiquitous. In general, PFAs do not get removed with wastewater treatment. And that's an area of a lot of concern, both here in Hawaiʻi and across the country," Felton said.

"These chemicals are likely to move through the wastewater treatment system and it's actually part of the same project we're working on with the landfill leachate, is looking at the wastewater — the concentrations of these chemicals in wastewater, both coming into the wastewater treatment plants and going out to further understand how they might be getting out with the effluent, with the discharge, out into the ocean," she told HPR.

Felton and her team are collecting wastewater samples from all counties and the study is halfway through.

"There are some options for home filtering that are likely to reduce the PFAs that they are exposed to," she said. "We're always concerned because that requires people to be able to afford the filtration systems, etc. And they have to be maintained carefully."

"But, you know, there's not a lot of other options at this point. One of the other things is people could think about where they might be exposed to these chemicals in other parts of their lives and try to minimize that as well," Felton added.

Find general information about the chemicals at epa.gov/pfas.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Jan. 24, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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