Apr 25, 2024 - News

SAWS monitoring "forever chemicals" in San Antonio drinking water

Illustration of an exclamation point-shaped water drop falling from a faucet.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

A San Antonio Water System well in Castle Hills tested positive for "forever chemicals" but just avoided exceeding the first-ever federal limits.

Why it matters: The new regulations require water utilities to reduce forever chemical levels to near zero, as exposure to them has been linked to serious health problems.

Catch up quick: This month, the EPA announced new rules limiting five synthetic compounds in a class of chemicals collectively known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

  • The rules require public water systems to monitor their supply for the chemicals. Utilities that exceed the limits have five years to implement solutions to reduce PFAS.

Zoom in: SAWS tested 16 to 18 wells across its service area for PFAS. Only one well — in Castle Hills — turned up any of the chemicals, Edward Guzman, SAWS' vice president of environmental law and regulatory compliance, tells Axios.

  • It exactly met the new limit of 4 parts per trillion (ppt).
  • The same well was tested again and did not turn up detectable PFAS levels, Guzman says.

By the numbers: 1 ppt is the same as a single drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools, per the Texas Tribune.

The big picture: In Texas, 49 public water utilities have reported surpassing the new chemical limits, per a Tribune analysis.

  • Nationwide, the Biden administration expects the new rule to reduce exposure to the dangerous chemicals in drinking water for about 100 million people and prevent thousands of related illnesses and deaths.

Context: PFAS have been prevalent since the 1950s, particularly in nonstick cookware and other fire-resistant and oil-repellent products.

  • They will never naturally degrade (leading to the forever chemicals moniker). So it's up to cities and water filtration systems to remove them from the drinking supply.
  • Most Americans have been exposed to PFAS and have it in their blood, testing has shown.

How it works: Because SAWS customers get their drinking water from multiple wells, the mixed water customers receive will have fewer forever chemicals than water from one well.

What they're saying: "We really don't feel that there's a need for concern," Guzman says. "We're certainly being very mindful of it, we're paying attention."

Zoom out: Most of San Antonio's water supply comes from groundwater so the water is naturally filtered.

  • Cities that get their drinking supply from surface water and are near manufacturing plants are more likely to experience PFAS problems, per Guzman.

What's next: SAWS will continue to test for PFAS over the next couple of years and eventually share its findings locally.

  • Those tests will provide a broader picture of any chemicals in San Antonio's system, Guzman says.
  • "We're going to have to stay on top of it to make sure that we don't get any hits that require us to take some action."
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