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Your Environment. Your Health.

Drinking Water as a Source of Exposure to Industrial Chemicals in the Ohio River Valley

PFOA and other PFAS are industrial chemicals used for stain- and water-resistant coatings, some paper coatings, metal plating, and other uses. These chemicals have been linked to developmental effects, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer. Some of these chemicals are no longer used in industry, but they are still found in the environment because they are difficult to break down. Once in the body, PFAS can linger for several years. Learn more.

Some Mid-Ohio River Valley residents have higher amounts of the industrial chemical polyfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in their blood than most other Americans, and industrial releases to the Ohio River may be a major source of exposure.

In a University of Cincinnati (UC) study, researchers found higher PFOA levels in the blood of people whose drinking water came from the Ohio River and the Ohio River Aquifer and lower levels for people whose drinking water was treated using activated carbon water filters.

UC researchers Robert Herrick and Susan Pinney, Ph.D., measured PFOA in blood from 931 Mid-Ohio Valley residents, including stored samples going back as far as 1991. Nearly all of the residents had some PFOA in their blood, and about half had very high levels. Higher PFOA levels were linked to higher tap water use and use of water from the Ohio River and the Ohio River Aquifer.

The chemical structure of the PFOA and other perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in blood samples suggests the contamination came from three known industrial sources of PFOA discharge into the Ohio River that are located upstream in West Virginia.

For people using carbon-filtered drinking water, PFOA blood levels were about half that of people who used drinking water without the filtration. Therefore, carbon filters helped reduce exposure but did not eliminate it.

The study, funded in part by the NIEHS Center for Environmental Genetics at UC, has been widely cited in Ohio River Valley regional media, including:

Citation: Herrick RL, Buckholtz J, Biro FM, Calafat AM, Ye X, Xie C, Pinney SM. 2017. Polyfluoroalkyl substance exposure in the Mid-Ohio River Valley, 1991-2012. Environ Pollut 228:50-60.