‘Dark Waters’ spotlights an often ignored foe

UC researcher found abnormal levels of contaminants in blood samples of Ohio River Valley residents

As Hollywood illuminates the dangers of contaminated drinking water with the release of “Dark Waters,” audiences are learning of the very environmental threats a University of Cincinnati researcher has been studying for years.

Susan Pinney, a professor in the UC Department of Environmental Health and director of the UC Center for Environmental Genetics, says the drinking water contaminate, perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, is as sinister as ever. She’s looking forward to ‘Dark Waters’ premiere, Friday, Nov. 22, in select movie theaters across the nation.  Pinney is planning on attending a showing once the movie arrives in Cincinnati, but that hasn’t stopped her from reading the reviews.

“This movie highlights the importance of calling out and taking on those who are polluting our environment,” said Pinney, who holds a doctorate in epidemiology from UC. “It’s one thing to have evidence, but the actual penalties and deterrents come with litigation and future fines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Susan Pinney, PhD, Environmental Health

Susan Pinney, professor of environmental health, is shown in the UC College of Medicine.

PFOA was used for manufacturing the chemical compound polytetrafluoroethylene until 2015. It persists in the environment; does not breakdown and was used in stain-resistant carpets, water-repellent clothes, paper and cardboard packing and foams used to fight fires. Studies in humans show PFOA can cause liver and thyroid damage, testicular and kidney cancer and problems leading to low birth weight babies, early puberty in children and immune system problems.

In “Dark Waters,” actor Mark Ruffalo plays a whistleblowing corporate lawyer who tries to hold a big corporation accountable for polluting the wells of a West Virginia farming community. The story is based on the real story of Cincinnati attorney Robert Bilott and an environmental lawsuit he brought against one of the world’s largest chemical companies, DuPont. The movie also includes actress Anne Hathaway.

UC’s Pinney authored a 2017 study that found that residents of the Mid-Ohio River Valley (from Cincinnati north to Huntington, West Virginia) had higher than normal levels of PFOA based on blood samples collected over a 22-year span. The exposure source was likely from drinking water contaminated by the industrial discharges upriver described in “Dark Waters.”

The study, published in Environmental Pollution, looked at levels of PFOA and 10 other substances (PFAS) in 931 Mid-Ohio River Valley residents, testing blood serum samples collected between 1991 and 2013, to determine whether the Ohio River and Ohio River Aquifer were sources of exposure. It was the first study of PFAS serum concentrations in U.S. residents in the 1990s.

Drinking water has been considered safe from PFOA contaminates in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky after both areas installed granular activated carbon filtration systems in their water treatment facilities, explained Pinney. Cincinnati did so in the 1990s while Northern Kentucky signed on in 2012. But other areas in Ohio are likely still affected by PFOA in drinking water, said Pinney.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine asked the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Health to develop an action plan by Dec. 1 to test public and private water systems that are near firefighting training sites and manufacturing facilities — areas that are known sources of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also considered a variant of PFOA.

As part of the action plan, the agencies will also develop a strategy to work with communities and private well owners on appropriate response measures if high levels of PFAS are found, according to the governor’s office.

Earlier this month, Pinney delivered a congressional briefing to the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senators and their staff members on this issue of PFOA. Perhaps 30 million people across the United States drink water from systems with lead and up to 110 million people could be drinking water with PFOAs, she said.

“‘Dark Waters’ reminds us that major pollution incidents such as PFOA in the surface and groundwater in the mid-Ohio Valley has health consequences,” said Pinney. “Researchers at UC and nationally are uncovering those health consequences. Some of those include decreased birth weight, later pubertal maturation in girls and decreased vaccine efficacy. There is some evidence of increased risk of certain cancers with PFOA exposure.”

Pinney said those cancer risks will be reviewed in the near future using biospecimens and data from the Fernald Community Cohort,  which contains health information of more than 9,700 people enrolled in an 18-year medical monitoring program with current ongoing follow-up of their health.

“Certainly health professionals in this area need to know about the increased health risks attributable to PFOA,” said Pinney. “Although the water in the greater Cincinnati is just fine, in other areas of Ohio it is untested, and therefore we do not know the current levels of PFAS. We have lost the opportunity to ever know what they were in the past.”

Featured Image at top: A still from the "Dark Waters" trailer reveals a section of the Ohio River, where the movie is set. Image of Susan Pinney taken by Colleen Kelley/ UC Creative Services.

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