100,000+ people in Alabama told not to use tap water due to chemical contamination

© Nguyen Huy Kham
Chemical contamination has left over 100,000 Alabamans without drinkable tap water, possibly until the fall, according to a warning issued by officials on Thursday.

The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority (WMEL) advised roughly 100,000 Alabama residents not to use their tap water for drinking or cooking, as it has been contaminated with potentially hazardous chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects, and developmental problems in children.

The warning comes on the heels of a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory that revealed higher than previously thought levels of synthetic chemicals known as PFOS (Perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) in Alabama waters. Scientists found PFOS and PFOA in the blood of “nearly all the people they tested,” but in low concentrations, the EPA said in its May 19 warning.

WMEL general manager Don Sims has advised residents in Lawrence and Morgan Counties to avoid tap water for either drinking or cooking until further notice.

The utility supplies water to nearly 100,000 people in the two counties, as well as up to 10,000 direct residential customers.

“I recommend that all our customers do not drink our water, until we are able to bring the temporary system our engineer is designing online,” Sims said at a news conference.

The warning covers not only fresh water, but even water boiled and filtered at home, since neither method can remove the chemical contaminants.

After building up in people and animals over time, PFOS and PFOA can also cause liver and thyroid damage, as well as immune system problems, with small children and expectant women the two categories most at risk.

“I would rather be over-cautious than under-cautious,” Sims said. “I’m not a doctor, I’m not a chemist, but when they tell one class of people the water is not safe, I don’t want to be the one to say ‘you drink it and you don’t.’ So I said nobody drink it.”

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The warning could remain in place until at least the fall, when a $4 million “temporary system” is expected to replace the current one, possibly in September, according to news website AL.com.

In the meantime, the water authority said that it has no “means to provide bottled water for its customers in the interim,” AL.com reported.

The temporary filter is supposed to support the affected Alabama counties until at least 2019, when a permanent system will become operational. Sims has previously estimated that the filter will cost from $30 to $50 million, AL.com reported.

The water authority determined that the chemical contamination came from companies located upstream on the Tennessee River, including the 3M Company, which discharges PFOS and PFOA in their manufacturing processes. The synthetic chemicals are widely used to make nonstick cookware, waterproof clothes, carpet sealants and fire-fighting foams.

According to AL.com, 3M vice president and corporate medical director Dr. Carol Ley counters the claim that the chemicals pose a risk, saying that the company’s workers, who are in contact with them for long periods of time, have not shown any evidence that exposure is detrimental to their health.

3M also issued a statement on Thursday, rejecting the EPA’s warnings and health concerns.

“Although we support the work of the EPA and other regulators, we believe these advisory levels are overly conservative,” Dr. Ley said in a statement. “We believe that PFOS and PFOA do not present health risks at levels they are typically found in the environment or in human blood,” Ley said, citing workers who “show no adverse health effects from PFC exposure.”

The local water authority sued 3M and other companies last October “to hold them responsible for cleaning up our water.”