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City water free of ‘forever chemicals’

With a new report showing drinking water from nearly half of all U.S. faucets likely contains dangerous “forever chemicals,” Mount Airy’s supply is deemed to be safe — and a new testing program is on tap to further ensure this.

“We’ve said this before, and I’ll just say that geographically Mount Airy is very blessed,” Public Works Director Mitch Williams said this week in discussing local water quality.

The city sits at the top of a rural watershed, Williams explained. “We’re the first user of the raw water drawn from Stewarts and Lovills Creek(s), so the potential for PFAS contamination is very low.”

“It’s safe,” City Manager Stan Farmer agreed regarding the absence from the municipal water supply of synthetic compounds known collectively as PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Those substances are a diverse group containing thousands of man-made chemicals used in hundreds of types of consumer goods, ranging from cleaning products to nonstick cookware and personal care items such as shampoo and nail polish.

The synthetic compounds do not break down easily over time in the environment— hence the name “forever chemicals” — and can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources. They can remain in the human body for years and are linked to cancer and other health problems.

One of the main ways people can be exposed to PFAS is by drinking contaminated municipal or private well water, which sometimes occurs when the substances are dumped into public wastewater systems.

While Mount Airy is said to be free of the chemicals, that’s not the case elsewhere in the nation, according to an Associated Press report.

A study released by the U.S. Geological Survey in recent days said the synthetic compounds are contaminating drinking water to varying extents in large cities and small towns through private wells and public systems.

Based on extensive sampling data, researchers estimate that at least one form of PFAS can be found in about 45 percent of tap water samples nationwide.

Past, future testing locally

Although Mount Airy’s water supply is considered safe from the PFAS threat, city officials have closely monitored the situation and remained vigilant to stay ahead of any problems.

“In the water-treatment industry, that’s pretty much all you hear about these days,” city Water Treatment Supervisor Andy Utt said this week regarding the awareness being devoted to the PFAS risk.

Both of Mount Airy’s treatment facilities — F.G. Doggett Water Plant and S.L. Spencer Water Plant — have been awarded by the N.C. Division of Water Resources for consistently surpassing federal and state drinking water standards in recent years.

The local plants have demonstrated outstanding turbidity removal, a key test of safe drinking water, according to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Turbidity is a measure of the cloudiness or haziness of water caused by individual particles that can interfere with disinfection and provide a medium for microbial growth. Microbes are microscopic particles that occur naturally but can include harmful bacteria and viruses.

All drinking water systems must adhere to strict state and federal standards of quality, but Mount Airy’s plants have been recognized for meeting performance goals that are significantly more stringent than state and federal standards.

Utt said the local water supply also has undergone PFAS testing, which occurred in 2013 and was focused on multiple substances. “There were about six or seven of them.”

None were detected, the city water treatment supervisor said. “So we have been really lucky in that regard.”

He pointed out that this doesn’t mean Mount Airy’s supply was totally devoid of PFAS. However, if any were present they were in such a minute quantity as to be undetectable — “so small the laboratory doesn’t even realize it’s there.”

That exists within a scenario through which such chemicals are calculated in parts per million, the U.S. standard unit of measurement in water chemistry. It refers to the density of a given substance dissolved in water.

More extensive testing of the water is scheduled next year, Utt says.

This will occur under what is known as the fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, or UCMR 5, for public water systems. It requires sample collection for chemical contaminants using analytical methods developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and consensus organizations.

The upcoming testing will focus on the possible presence of about 30 different contaminants. Many have names almost impossible to spell or pronounce, such as perfluoropentanesulfonic acid and hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid to name just two.

In addition to in-town customers, Mount Airy also has supplied water to users just outside the city limits, other municipalities such as Dobson and Pilot Mountain and areas of Virginia.



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