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A look into 'forever chemicals' in Tampa Bay's drinking water, as a federal study determines limits

Close-up of hand with blue glove holding a clear plastic bottle under a silver nozzle with running water coming out. It's connected to a big blue pipe with the label "Lab Sample Point" on it. Greenery is in the background.
Jessica Meszaros
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WUSF
Drinking water samples being taken from Tampa Bay Water's Lake Bridge Water Treatment Plant in Hillsborough County.

Walk through the PFAS drinking water testing process and learn what the first round of results mean.

Clean drinking water is falling from the spout of a large blue metal pipe about five feet tall.

Philip Matthews, a field technician, is collecting samples from outside of a Tampa Bay Water treatment plant in northern Hillsborough County.

The agency is conducting quarterly tests for PFAS, or “forever chemicals” as part of a year-long study for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Water utilities across the greater Tampa Bay region are taking part in the nationwide study of PFAS in drinking water. 

This will help to officially set federal limits in drinking water for the first time.

PFAS stands for a large family of toxic manmade chemical compounds that have been used in consumer and industry products since the 1940s -- from clothing, upholstery, and carpet to microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers.

Exposure to certain levels of PFAS can impact the body's ability to fight infections and lead to reproductive effects or an increased risk of cancer, among other health impacts.

Tampa Bay Water, which provides drinking water to Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, is one of the study participants.
 
Out of 15 of its sampled locations, only two tested slightly above proposed federal limits for one of six PFAS compounds.

Man with black long sleeve collared shirt, green pants, brown boots, a beige hat and blue lab gloves standing on green grass taking a water sample from a big blue outdoor pipe.
Jessica Meszaros
/
WUSF
Philip Matthews, field tech for Tampa Bay Water, pulling drinking water samples from a water treatment plant in Hillsborough.

Because PFAS is everywhere, Matthews has to be extra cautious when handling the samples.

"Especially with it being ubiquitous, and in soaps and many other things, obviously, I have to wash it out of my clothes several times, you know, prior to bringing them out and wearing them. I have to don gloves before I sample," said Matthews.

Even this interview could lead to contamination, so this is just a simulation and won't be a part of the official study.

Laboratory machine with little tubes and bottles.
Jessica Meszaros
/
WUSF
The laboratory equipment separates the samples into components to be analyzed.

After letting the tap flush out for about five minutes, Matthews fills a couple of plastic bottles.

"Seal 'em back up with bags and put them on ice and back to the laboratory," he said, stashing the bags in a cooler.

About 20 minutes away is Tampa Bay Water's lab in Land O' Lakes where technicians look for 29 different PFAS compounds.

"Once the samples are brought in here and brought back to temperature, the PFAS samples undergo pretty intensive preparation steps," said Steve Fleischacker, who’s in charge of water quality for the agency.

After being prepped for different methods of testing, the samples get injected into a machine with eight little tubes.

"It will separate out the different PFAS compounds using detection capabilities. And then what happens is the signals from those detectors will result in the generation of what you see on the screen here," he said.

A computer monitor shows a curving reddish line that peaks up.

"Each PFAS compound would have its own separate curve with its own separate peak," said Fleischacker.

Man wearing a white lab coat with clear lab glasses on his head looking into a computer screen with charted data and a red curved line that peaks up.
Jessica Meszaros
/
WUSF
Devon Thompson is a Tampa Bay Water scientist analyzing the sample data.

For utilities like Tampa Bay Water, it takes a while to break the data down and send its findings to the EPA.

The first samples were taken in July, and it finally came back in September that two water treatment plants in Hillsborough were just slightly above the EPA's proposed limit of 4 parts per trillion for one PFAS chemical, PFOS.

The Central Water Treatment Plant had 4.1 ppt, and the Lithia Water Treatment Plant had 4.3 ppt.

Fleischacker explained why this may have occurred during a recent Tampa Bay Water board meeting.

"It's more likely that PFAS sources would come from surface water than groundwater in our region, and that's because of… everyday use of PFAS compounds," he said to the board.

These lower levels are likely coming from people's wastewater and septic tanks, Fleischacker said.

The agency's 13 other tested sites were either below the EPA suggested limits or not detected.

The region’s individual municipalities are conducting their own drinking water studies separate from Tampa Bay Water, using outside contractors.

Here are the minor discrepancies:

  • Central Water Treatment Plant with Hillsborough County – Tampa Bay Water results were 4.3 ppt and the county’s contract lab was 5.4 ppt.
  • Lithia Water Treatment with Hillsborough County – Tampa Bay Water results were 4.1 ppt and the County’s contract lab was less than 4 ppt.
  • Lake Bridge Water Treatment Plant with Pasco County – Tampa Bay Water results were 2.9 ppt and the County’s contract lab was 4.4 ppt.

Back in August,WUSF reported on “alarming levels” of PFAS compounds in the drinking water coming out of the Orangewood Water System in Holiday and in the city of Pembroke Pines.
 
The Orangewood Water System had eight different PFAS compounds at 185.4 ppt, and water coming out of Pembroke Pines had nine different PFAS compounds at 171.6 ppt.

And in 2018, the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group found that MacDill Air Force Base had a PFAS concentration in the environment of 523,710 ppt, while the “safe” limit is considered 70 ppt.

Unlike Florida, some more industrial states have set limits on PFAS in drinking water, and have gotten their levels to around 10 to 20 ppt, Fleischacker told the Tampa Bay Water board.
 
More than 10,000 water systems across the country are participating in this monitoring project.

"We're going to be uploading the data as it's reported to us into our National Contaminant Occurrence Database on a quarterly basis, from now until well into 2026,” said Eric Burneson, with the EPA's office of groundwater and drinking water.

“When we're done, we're gonna have over two million records on the levels of PFAS and lithium that are found in drinking water."

Back in March, the EPA proposed limits for six PFAS chemicals in drinking water, but it's using this monitoring process to gather data on the frequency and level at which the chemicals occur.

Burneson said his agency intends to finalize those rules by the end of this year.
 
“And when fully implemented, we think it's going to prevent thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of avoidable illnesses," he said.

Once the EPA sets official limits, then Tampa Bay Water and other utilities can come up with treatment plans.

For now, samples will continue to be taken this month, then again in January, and lastly in April.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.