STUART, Fla. — The city of Stuart is now suing several major companies it said contaminated the city’s drinking water for decades, giving people who live and work there no warning.
The lawsuit claims the companies, which manufacture fire suppression foam, knew there were chemicals in their products that could harm the environment and threaten public health. The lawsuit says the companies delayed notifying the consumers they sold the product to, including firefighters in Stuart.
It’s leaving some worried about cancer and other serious ailments some researchers link to long term exposure to the contaminants.
Now, the City of Stuart is working on several major projects to make sure your water stays safe.
In September 2018, several Stuart homeowners were given notice from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that their groundwater tested positive for high levels of chemicals called PFOAs and PFOS.
The chemicals were long used in making clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and other materials (cookware) that are resistant to water, grease or stains. They are also used for firefighting at airfields and in a number of industrial processes, according to the EPA.
Health risks, based off of peer-reviewed studies of the effects of PFOA and PFOS on rats and mice, and through epidemiological studies on human populations exposed to PFOAS and PFOA, showed exposure at certain levels could result in developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, live tissue damage, immune effects, thyroid effects, and cholesterol changes.
“I think that’s just horrifying, to be honest with you,” said Stuart resident, Theresa Kudo.
Theresa Kudo’s sister received the FDEP letter saying the levels were high in her groundwater, used for watering her lawn. Fortunately, she doesn’t drink the water.
Kudo lives just a few doors down from her sister.
“I live in the same block, same city block as my sister. My house was not tested but her house was tested so I figure my water is probably very much the same.”
Most people have been exposed to the chemicals because of their broad use.
Because of their potential harm, PFOS was phased out of production by a primary manufacturer between 2000 and 2002. In 2006, more major companies phased out the use of the chemical.
The EPA says in 2009, the EPA established provisional health advisories for PFOA and PFOS.
In 2016, the EPA set the lifetime exposure health advisory limit at 70 parts per trillion.
“70 parts per trillion is kind of the equivalent to having a grain of sand in an Olympic sized swimming pool,” said City of Stuart spokesperson, Ben Hogarth.
But even after being phased out of production, there’s one problem: “They don’t biodegrade,” said Hogarth, who has been studying the PFOA and PFOS concerns for years.
He and other city leaders are confident the high levels in some private wells are the result of firefighters using fire suppression foam locally for decades.
The highest levels in the city were found near the fire department’s training complex.
In an effort to confirm or rule out the training facility as a possible source of contamination in various wells around the city, the city drilled a monitoring well by the facility, finding levels in excess of 34,000 parts per trillion.
“We found excessive contamination, one that has incurred the EPA and DEP to do a test and a study on it."
Hogarth says experts do not know how far the contaminants can spread through the soil.
“Our concern is that that could continue to permeate through the soil and feed into raw water that we would normally use for water distribution."
In 2016, the city found high levels of the contaminants made their way into city drinking water wells. The wells were immediately capped and continue to remain out of service.
“We’re constantly testing at the water plant, weekly, sometimes daily depending on the nature of the test,” Hogarth said.
Currently, the city’s drinking water is at levels well below the health advisory limit.
“City levels have remained below that new number, that new threshold and continue to do so,” Hogarth said,
Firefighters also no longer use the foam with those chemicals.
But now, the city is prepared to spend potentially tens of millions of dollars cleaning the soil and getting rid of any trace of the chemicals in city wells. That is the anticipation of environmental agencies continuing to lower the health advisory limit in the future. Additionally, the city has plans to potentially drill an entirely new water source.
The city is currently working on a $2 million clean up the project.
The city is suing several manufacturers with a goal of having the companies pay for the projects.
“The concern isn’t just with our city, it’s shared throughout the country now, and actually it’s a world crisis and a world issue.”
Hogarth stresses the city’s drinking water is safe. But, he recommends taking action if you have a private well, not monitored by the city.
“I highly recommend if you do have a private well to test it.”
Hogarth says the city of Stuart proactively detected the high PFOA and PFOS levels and is among the only communities in the state working on a remedy. He says it’s possible there are communities in the state, country or globally which are unaware of their contaminant levels near fire fighting complexes or other locations where the foam was frequently used.
“There are sites all across the country and municipalities that are going to be dealing with this issue. The good news for people who live in Stuart is that the city has already been so proactive about the problem that not only have we isolated the problem, identified the primary source of contamination, but within a year we’re going to have a treatment system up that’s going to completely remove these contaminants,” Hogarth said,
The EPA has a list of areas in the state they know have PFOA contamination. All of them include Air Force bases and the Kennedy Space Center. Hogarth says because of the city’s proactive work identifying PFOA contamination, EPA records show the City of Stuart as the only municipality being studied by the EPA for contamination.