Forever chemicals found in drinking water throughout Illinois
Something as simple as drinking tap water is exposing millions of Illinoisans to toxic chemicals that build up in human blood, cause cancer and other diseases and take years to leave the body.
Scientists call the chemicals per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. They are commonly known as forever chemicals because they don’t break down in the environment.
Despite plenty of warning signs, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency didn’t begin testing the state’s water utilities for PFAS until August 2020. Then state and local officials downplayed the results, burying notices filled with technical jargon on government websites.
Until now the scope of PFAS problems in Illinois remained unknown. More than 8 million people in the state — 6 out of every 10 Illinoisans — get their drinking water from a utility where at least one forever chemical has been detected, according to a Chicago Tribune investigation that included a computerized analysis of test results and a review of court documents, government records and scientific studies.
Worrisome concentrations of PFAS have been found in Chicago, which provides treated Lake Michigan water to more than 5 million people in the city and suburbs. The chemicals are in other lakefront communities with their own water treatment plants, including Evanston, Glencoe, Lake Forest, Waukegan, Wilmette and Winnetka.
Forever chemicals also contaminate drinking water from wells and rivers throughout the Chicago area and in dozens of downstate communities, from cities such as East St. Louis, Peoria and Rockford to small rural towns and mobile home parks.
“It’s disgusting and overwhelming at the same time,” said Ellen Meeks Rendulich, co-director of a grassroots environmental group in Will County, where the state found PFAS in a dozen communities, including the Criswell Court mobile home park in Joliet.
Tracy Lehr remembered that state officials came twice last year to test a well on the property. Lehr, who has lived in Criswell Court for 21 years, said she and her neighbors were never warned their water is contaminated with PFAS at levels up to 1,800 times higher than the latest federal health advisory.
“I’ve never trusted the water here,” Lehr said as she pointed to shrink-wrapped packs of bottled water stacked throughout her trailer.
The testing at Criswell Court and in other Illinois communities highlights a health and environmental disaster that keeps expanding worldwide as scientists and government officials search for PFAS in water, soil and air.
State and local officials said they don’t know how the chemicals are contaminating drinking water. Nor has anyone attempted to track if any Illinoisans have been harmed.
The Tribune identified 1,654 potential sources of PFAS statewide through a national analysis of industry codes that designate the type of products manufactured or used at a particular factory. Only California, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida have more facilities on the list of suspected polluters.
More than 60% of the Illinois facilities are in Chicago and its suburbs, the analysis found, but 85 of the state’s 102 counties have at least one potential source of the chemicals.
Forever chemicals end up in lakes, rivers and wells after flushing through sewage treatment plants and spreading from factory smokestacks. The chemicals also leach out of products such as carpets, clothing, cookware, cosmetics, dental floss, fast-food wrappers, firefighting foam, food packaging, microwave popcorn bags, paper plates, pizza boxes, rain jackets and ski wax.
Yet PFAS remain largely unregulated. The U.S. EPA, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, has repeatedly cleared new versions of the chemistry without thoroughly assessing health risks or limiting their use. Chemical companies have declared that many PFAS formulas are trade secrets, making it difficult for scientists to identify the compounds and determine if they are harmful.
Two of the most studied PFAS are so toxic there is effectively no safe level of exposure, the U.S. EPA declared last month after reviewing the latest research.
Scientists are finding that tiny concentrations can trigger testicular and kidney cancer, birth defects, liver damage, impaired fertility, immune system disorders, high cholesterol and obesity. Links to other diseases are suspected, in part because the chemicals disrupt albumin, a protein that carries hormones and vitamins through the bloodstream.
“They affect every organ system in the body, at different times of your life, which makes them different than most other toxic substances,” said Linda Birnbaum, who retired as director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences in 2019 after a 40-year career as a government scientist.
Pioneered after World War II by the global conglomerates 3M and DuPont, the synthetic chemicals have been added for decades to products featuring brand names such as Scotchgard, Stainmaster and Teflon. Industry promotes PFAS as miracles of science, but since the late 1990s lawsuits have revealed that 3M and DuPont hid from regulators and the public what the companies knew decades ago about the harmful consequences.
Nearly every American has PFAS in their bodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Babies are born with the chemicals in their blood.
The chief manufacturers, 3M and DuPont, have paid nearly $2 billion combined to settle PFAS-related lawsuits without accepting responsibility for contaminated drinking water or diseases suffered by people exposed to the chemicals.
In a statement, 3M said there is no proof its versions of the chemistry “cause adverse health effects in humans.” DuPont, which in 2015 spun off its chemicals division into a separate company called Chemours, stressed it no longer makes PFAS. Chemours said a PFAS that contaminates water supplies downstream from a former DuPont plant it owns in North Carolina “is safe for its intended use in our manufacturing processes” and does not cause “cancer or liver disease.”
The PFAS found most frequently during water testing in Illinois are former Teflon and Scotchgard compounds: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).
Career scientists at the U.S. EPA and state health officials in California concluded last year that the chemicals are far more dangerous than previously thought. The federal agency announced June 15 that PFOA and PFOS are unsafe at concentrations so small they can’t be measured using conventional laboratory techniques.
Like other members of the chemical family, PFOA and PFOS are fused with virtually indestructible bonds of carbon and fluorine atoms, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.” Industry records show 3M and DuPont knew decades ago that hundreds of other PFAS break down to either PFOA or PFOS in people and the environment.
“The ones we are measuring look really bad,” said Elsie Sunderland, an environmental chemist at Harvard University. “We’re seeing more and more (health) impacts at lower and lower levels, and we don’t have any substantial evidence that any of these compounds are safe in the way industry says they are.”
As Sunderland and other scientists realized the same qualities that make the chemicals desirable to industry makes them hazardous to people, multiple presidential administrations — Democratic and Republican alike — have vowed to adopt national standards.
But two decades after the U.S. EPA under President George W. Bush launched what the agency called a “priority review” of PFOA and PFOS, water utilities in Illinois and most other states still aren’t legally required to protect their customers from the chemicals.
Without enforceable regulations, utilities generally have done nothing to limit potential health risks from drinking contaminated water.
The Chicago Department of Water Management did not adjust its treatment methods after detecting PFOS, 3M’s original Scotchgard chemical, in treated Lake Michigan water during 2009 and 2011. Department officials noted the Illinois EPA’s 2020-21 investigation did not find PFAS at the city’s two treatment plants, but scientists caution the chemicals are widespread in the Great Lakes.
Federal authorities knew by the early 2000s that 3M had found PFAS at blood banks throughout the nation, and that 3M and DuPont had detected the chemicals in drinking water. Yet the U.S. EPA didn’t begin testing nationally for the chemicals until 2013.
One of the communities chosen for the agency’s study was Freeport, a small industrial city in northwest Illinois.
Jim Gitz, who was Freeport’s mayor at the time, said there was no sense of urgency when federal officials found high levels of PFOA and PFOS in the city’s drinking water.
“This was treated by the city as an experiment,” Gitz recalled in an interview. “We decided we shouldn’t get worked up unless the EPA told us we needed to do something.”
Additional testing in Freeport — from 2016 to as recently as February — continued to find PFAS at the city’s treatment plant and in half of its wells, according to state records. Potential sources of the contamination remain unknown, though Gitz speculated the chemicals could have oozed out an abandoned dump upstream from the treatment plant.
Freeport’s eventual response shows how the costs of PFAS contamination often are borne by taxpayers rather than polluters.
The city borrowed more than $17 million in federal-state loans to build a new treatment plant and drill new wells that tap into an uncontaminated aquifer. Freeport hopes to end its era of PFAS-contaminated drinking water by next year, said Rob Boyer, the city’s public works director.
By then it will have been nearly a decade since the U.S. EPA first tested Freeport’s water for the chemicals.
Absent federal regulation, a handful of states have imposed their own limits on PFAS in drinking water, the most stringent of which are in California, Michigan, New York and Washington.
So far the closest thing to standards in Illinois are nonenforceable state health advisories adopted last year for PFOA, PFOS and four related compounds.
A quarter of the Illinoisans exposed to the chemicals in drinking water — 2 million people — are customers of utilities that exceeded the state’s guidelines for at least one PFAS, the Tribune found.
Amid growing concerns about the chemicals, some Illinois utilities have voluntarily taken action.
Officials in Rockford hooked up a cluster of mobile homes to the municipal water system last year and abandoned the development’s highly contaminated wells. In McHenry County, the villages of Cary and Lake in the Hills stopped using wells with PFAS concentrations exceeding state guidelines.
Five Will County communities — Channahon, Crest Hill, Joliet, Romeoville and Shorewood — are forming a new water authority organized by Joliet. Instead of relying on wells that can’t keep up with demand, the authority is building a 31-mile pipeline that will convey treated Lake Michigan water sold by Chicago.
The ambitious project, expected to be completed in 2030 at a cost to ratepayers of least $1.4 billion, is intended to ensure the communities have enough water for residents and the region’s major employers: distribution centers built by Amazon and other retailers.
Several municipal wells in Will County also are contaminated with PFAS.
“That was another consideration for us when we debated whether or not to sign up with Joliet,” said Mark Siefert, the Crest Hill public works director. “I trust Chicago is going to provide us with safe, reliable drinking water.”
Ed Dolezal, public works director in Channahon, said he expects utilities eventually will be required to limit PFAS in drinking water. It would be less burdensome to spread the costs among multiple communities tapped into Chicago’s system, he said.
“Especially when you consider this stuff is found pretty much anywhere you look around the world these days,” Dolezal said. “I’m sure the lake isn’t immune to PFAS. If it becomes a problem, our agreements require it to be handled by the city.”
Dozens of other Illinois communities are stuck with contaminated water for now, including the Criswell Court trailer park.
The future of the development is tied up in court proceedings after the longtime owner died six years ago, said manager Wendy Miller, who brushed aside questions about the safety of the well water.
“From what I’m told these chemicals are everywhere,” Miller said. “What can we do about it?”
For communities that rely on lakes or rivers, the only proven methods to remove PFAS can cost billions to build and maintain.
The Chicago Department of Water Management said it doesn’t plan to upgrade its treatment plants to address PFAS unless the city is required to do so by the federal government.
Brian Keys, director of the Water and Electric Department in Winnetka, said the village is testing quarterly for PFAS and is researching methods to remove the chemicals from drinking water. Other lakefront communities are following the same script.
Bottled water isn’t necessarily safer, studies have found. Certain types of household filters can screen out the chemicals, though.
Rendulich, the Will County activist, worries most Illinoisans don’t know about PFAS in their water unless they attend city council meetings or carefully read their mail.
Exhausted from years of battles with local polluters and municipal officials, Rendulich had all but retired from Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, or CARE, a nonprofit group she and two neighbors formed during the mid-1990s to fight a proposed garbage incinerator. PFAS pulled her back into the fray. Now she is organizing Zoom sessions to educate people about the chemicals and calling elected representatives to urge more aggressive action.
“You work on the politicians a bit, you get the public aware so they start working on the politicians,” Rendulich said.
Initially she found the only other Illinoisans concerned about PFAS belonged to a church group in the Metro East region outside St. Louis. The group fears the only hazardous waste incinerator licensed in Illinois could accept PFAS waste and release the chemicals into surrounding communities.
“When you learn about what these companies are doing to our environment, you just can’t close your eyes,” Rendulich said. “I’m getting old, I felt I needed to get away from this. But these threats to our drinking water are too big to ignore.”
Based on notices posted by water utilities with PFAS contamination, it could be easy to dismiss the hazards. Dry, bureaucratic language suggested by the Illinois EPA doesn’t mention health risks until the second page, for instance.
When researchers analyzed PFAS webpages in other states during 2020, they found a lack of transparency and context.
“Even if information was made available, it was difficult to navigate,” said Alissa Cordner, a Whitman College sociologist and one of the study’s authors.
Several community notices reviewed by the Tribune downplay the danger by highlighting a unit of measurement for PFAS: “1 part per trillion is equivalent to one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”
But PFOA is so toxic the Illinois EPA’s health advisory is 2 parts per trillion. The state advisory for PFOS is 14 ppt.
Newly announced federal health advisories are exponentially more stringent. Both chemicals are unsafe at concentrations measured in parts per quadrillion, according to the U.S. EPA.
Put another way, a single Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with PFOS would contain enough of the chemical to contaminate the drinking water of every American, said Chris Higgins, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.
“A little bit goes a long way,” Higgins said.
There are just three documented sources of PFAS pollution in Illinois. Two are unnamed Chicago metal plating shops studied by the U.S. EPA during the late 2000s; the other is a 3M chemical plant in Rock Island County that pumps PFAS waste into the Mississippi River upstream from the Quad Cities.
In 2019, Congress required industry to begin reporting PFAS releases through the federal Toxics Release Inventory, an online database that enables Americans to determine what types of chemicals are polluting their communities. The Trump administration created so many loopholes that only 36 facilities nationwide acknowledged PFAS discharges during 2020; none were in Illinois.
Voluntary surveys aren’t helpful either. When the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago asked Cook County companies last year if they dumped PFAS-laden waste into sewers, less than a third replied.
Clues about other culprits are buried in court records, regulatory documents and government emails reviewed by the Tribune.
For instance, the U.S. EPA is considering the first-ever federal regulation of PFAS pollution from a handful of industries, including chemical manufacturers, metal platers, paper mills, food packaging plants, textile and carpet manufacturers. Airports also are on the list.
Officials at the water reclamation district compiled their own list and have begun collecting samples of sewage near metal platers and other companies suspected of using PFAS.
Because there are no federal or state limits on the pollution, companies can legally flush PFAS into sewers. When the waste reaches treatment plants, the chemicals concentrate in effluent released into lakes and rivers and sludge marketed to farmers and gardeners as fertilizer, studies have found.
The need for a national investigation has been apparent for years. Minnesota officials found high levels of PFOS in waste from a chrome-plating factory during the late 2000s, prompting U.S. EPA scientists to collect samples from chrome platers in Chicago and Cleveland.
“Yet here we are, 20-plus years later and we still don’t know for sure where these chemicals are being used and where they are being released,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization that has studied PFAS and advocated for federal regulations since the early 2000s. “Answering those questions should have been a critical first step.”
John Kim, director of the Illinois EPA, acknowledged the state is behind in addressing PFAS contamination. Testing for the chemicals at Illinois water utilities provided a rationale for the state to take action, Kim said.
The first regulations proposed by the Illinois EPA would limit PFAS in underground sources of water connected to public and private wells. Drinking water regulations are more complicated, Kim said, because state law requires the agency to prove cost-effective, technically feasible treatment methods are available.
“We are required to follow a process and defend what we come up with in public meetings and in response to comments,” Kim said. “That takes time. But if we do this on our terms … I believe we will have (standards) much quicker than if we wait for U.S. EPA.”
Echoing their counterparts at the federal level, industry lobbyists in Illinois are questioning academic and government studies that the state agency is relying on while crafting its regulations.
“Arbitrary, politically motivated rules or hasty and unattainable regulations could result in costly ramifications, hampering the ability to produce essential products that we rely on every day,” said Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers Association.
There is no question that PFAS are dangerous. Scientists and advocates are pushing industry executives and government officials to remove the chemicals from products and industrial processes unless there is proof they are needed to protect consumers or workers.
“We really need to be eliminating nonessential uses of PFAS,” said Arlene Blum, a chemist and the executive director of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute. “There also needs to be a greater emphasis on finding safe alternatives.”
Among other lingering questions: Who pays to ensure water is safe to drink?
President Joe Biden vowed during his 2020 campaign to make PFAS a high priority for the federal government. His administration is planning to seek public comments this fall about legally enforceable drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS. The U.S. EPA also might add PFAS to the list of chemicals regulated under the federal Superfund law, which enables the agency to require polluters to clean up contaminated sites.
“People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” Michael Regan, the Biden EPA’s administrator, said last month.
Congress set aside $10 billion last year for loans and grants to finance PFAS-related projects. Some municipal utilities already are applying for low-interest, taxpayer-financed loans through the same program Freeport is relying on to free the city from contaminated water.
3M, Chemours and DuPont all said they oppose the potential Superfund designation. “We believe science-based federal standards will provide clear, uniform guidance for all,” DuPont said in its statement. “However, we believe there is risk of unintended consequences through a (Superfund) listing.”
More than a dozen Illinois communities are on record saying taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pick up the tab. In the Chicago area, Cary, Crest Hill, Lake in the Hills, Rockdale and South Elgin have joined hundreds of other cities and towns across the country suing 3M, DuPont and other PFAS manufacturers for clean water.
Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati lawyer who won PFAS legal settlements against DuPont in Ohio and West Virginia, is advising the team prosecuting the newer lawsuits, all of which have been funneled to a federal court in South Carolina.
“You’ve got these man-made toxins and we know who made them,” Bilott said. “But so far, unfortunately, the costs are being pushed down to all of us instead of the companies that are responsible. That just isn’t right.”