Now Reading
New study left Columbus residents concerned about their water; local & national water experts break it down for us

New study left Columbus residents concerned about their water; local & national water experts break it down for us

Sav McKee

The Columbus region has recently been put on the map (literally – see map below) for samples of water containing PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances). However, before you rush to empty the shelves of bottled water at the grocery stores, let’s delve deeper into the issue with a national expert and comments from Central Ohio water treatment plants.

We had the privilege of engaging in an in-depth discussion with Kelly Smalling, a research hydrologist and U.S. Geological Surveyor (USGS), who spearheaded the groundbreaking study that exposed 45% of PFAS contamination in American tap water. 

Photo via USGS

As a non-biased scientist, Smalling led the research initiative and authored the widely-shared article that has garnered global attention. When asked if she was surprised by any of her findings, she responded, “We didn’t know what to expect going in. We knew, based on our studies and studies done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that we’d probably find some PFAS, but we didn’t know what the percentage would be. We also didn’t know how broad.”


What exactly are PFAS, and why are they under such scrutiny now? According to the U.S. EPA, “PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals used in a wide variety of common applications, from the linings of fast-food boxes and non-stick cookware to fire-fighting foams and other purposes. High concentrations of some PFAS may lead to adverse health risks in people. Research is still ongoing to better understand the potential health effects of PFAS exposure over long periods of time. Because they break down very slowly, PFAS are commonly called ‘forever chemicals.’ Their persistence in the environment and prevalence across the country make them a unique water-quality concern.” 

While this study was initially intended for private well owners (Smalling reminded us that private wells aren’t regulated whatsoever), in order to compare those numbers, Smalling and her team had to test an equal number of public supplies in every state. 

Within the Columbus region alone, the interactive map revealed about 100 potential sources of PFAS contamination per 1,500 square kilometers. These sources encompass any facility that involves PFAS manufacturing or usage: airports, military installations with fire-fighting foams, water resistant clothing manufacturers, and even fast food packaging plants.

On Columbus’ East Side, stretching all the way to Newark, OH, the map shows there were 3 specific types of PFAS compounds that were found in one private supply of water. This is where it all becomes a little confusing, but it’s very important to consider. Since PFOA, a type of PFAS, is considered carcinogenic, the EPA is proposing a level of 0. This is the chemical that’s been used the most throughout the years. “There is no known safe level of PFOA,” emphasized Smalling. This study shows that PFOA, in addition to PFBS and PFHxS, were detected in this private sampling of water.

Photos via USGS

While some may start resorting to bottled water after seeing these results, Smalling pointed me towards a bottled water study conducted by the USGS, which shows that, “…simultaneous exposures to multiple drinking-water contaminants of potential human-health concern are common in bottled water.” She emphasized that, “All water has a shared challenge. We live in a human impacted environment.” 

In order to gain a better understanding of the water flowing through Columbus’ faucets and not just the private supply tested by USGS, we reached out to three different water treatment plants: Pickerington, The City of Columbus’ Water Division, and Del-Co Water.

The Pickerington Water Department stated that the latest study conducted by the Ohio EPA found no detectable levels of PFAS in their local water system whatsoever. “The EPA usually tests for PFAS here, and not our local water plant,” a spokesperson said. 

The Columbus Division of Water stated that although levels of PFAS have been found in their tap water supply, it’s still safe to drink. “Our technicians perform water quality monitoring and treatment research to ensure Columbus drinking water meets or exceeds all federally mandated Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) standards.” They emphasized that they perform tens of thousands of tests each year to make sure that Columbus water meets the current compliance standards proposed by the U.S. EPA. “Several PFAS compounds have been found at very low levels, near the detection limits of the test. All results to date have been well below the action level established by the Ohio EPA, and also within the range permitted under recently proposed U.S. EPA guidelines,” said a spokesperson.

Recently, the EPA proposed more regulation involving our drinking water, specifically to establish legally enforceable levels, called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), and according to The City of Columbus, their PFAS meet those guidelines and standards.

Del-Co Water, a private company that utilizes the water from The Olentangy River, the Scioto River, Alum Creek, and a ground-water aquifer in Knox County, treats and distributes water to about 156,000 people in the Columbus region. Jeff Kauffman, the Communications and Compliance Director at Del-Co Water, provided us with essential information. They test for PFAS compounds, and they’ve found some level of PFAS compounds in their water that resemble the findings of Columbus and Smalling. “It’s probably something that most surface water treatments would detect if they tested for it. Most treatment plants do not though – they may not have the resources or capabilities to do so, and not all are required to,” said Kauffman. 

“In 2020, the Ohio EPA tested most Ohio public water systems – about 94% of PFAS were undetectable at that time. Since then, analytical capabilities have allowed us to see more. Recent data shows more detections now vs. then because analytical capabilities keep increasing,” Kauffman said. “It’s all very complex – the science has gotten better, but more research is needed.”

He reminded us that PFAS are found in multiple sources – not just water. Even the fast-food wrapping that holds a burger can contain some amount of PFAS.

For the future of our water supply, “We’re hoping that regulators and policy makers can take this information and start planning how they want to handle PFAS now and into the future,” remarked Kelly Smalling.

Those eager to learn more can check out this resource Smalling provided regarding how to reduce PFAS exposure, and also the Consumer Quality Report  that The City of Columbus suggested to look over. Kauffman also emphasizes that the Ohio EPA’s website is helpful as well. 

Want to read more? Check out our print publication, (614) Magazine. Learn where you can find a free copy of our new August issue here!


Scroll To Top