One year later toxins discovered in Wheeler Lake

Almost one year ago to the day Southern Fishing News published two stories about contamination of Wheeler Lake: COMMENTARY ON PFOS PART ONE: What is PFOS and are there any dangers ( part-one-what-is-pfos-and-are-there-any-dangers); COMMENTARY PART TWO: PFOS and the Fisherman (

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has lowered the acceptable limits for two industrial chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) that have been found in the groundwater downstream from the Decatur Utilities treatment plant (read the description of the toxins in Part One above). Wheeler Lake contamination has finally got the attention of the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the governor of Alabama as if something new has been revealed. However, the high levels of the PFOA AND PFOS toxins has been known for quite some time.

Southern Fishing News' warning sign.

Southern Fishing News’ warning sign.

Wikipedia’s page on PFOS has a lot of educational information. Wikipedia states, In 1949, 3M began producing PFOS-based compounds by electrochemical fluorination resulting in the synthetic precursor perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride.]In 1968, organofluorine content was detected in the blood serum of consumers, and in 1976 it was suggested to be PFOA or a related compound such as PFOS.  In 1997, 3M detected PFOS in blood from global blood banks. In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA ) began investigating perfluorinated compounds after receiving data on the global distribution and toxicity of PFOS, the key ingredient in Scotchgard, Teflon and numerous stain repellents. PFOS compounds can also be found in some impregnation agents for textiles, paper, and leather; in wax, polishes, paints, varnishes, and cleaning products for general use; in metal surfaces, and carpets.

The PFOS levels that have been detected in wildlife are considered high enough to affect health parameters. Recently, higher serum levels of PFOS were found to be associated with increased risk of chronic kidney disease in the general US population, consistent with earlier animal studies. What are the routes of exposure and the health effects of PFOS and PFOA? Again, directly from the aforementioned EPA factsheet:

  • Reported data indicate that serum concentrations of PFOS and PFOA are higher in workers and individuals living near fluorochemical production facilities than for the general population (Calafat and others 2007; EPA 2009c).
  • Potential pathways, which may lead to widespread exposure, include ingestion of food and water, use of commercial products or inhalation from long range air transport of PFC-containing particulate matter (ATSDR 2009; EPA 2009c).
  • Based on the limited information available, fish and fishery products seem to be one of the primary sources of human exposure to PFOS (EFSA 2008).
  • Studies also indicate that continued exposure to low levels of PFOA in drinking water may result in adverse health effects (Post and others 2012).
  • Toxicology studies show that PFOS and PFOA are readily absorbed after oral exposure and accumulate primarily in the serum, kidney and liver. No further metabolism is expected (EPA 2006a, 2009c).
  • PFOS and PFOA have half-lives in humans ranging from 2 to 9 years, depending on the study. This half-life results in continued exposure that could increase body burdens to levels that would result in adverse outcomes (ATSDR 2009; EPA 2009c; Kärrman and others 2006; Olsen and others 2007).
  • Both PFOS and PFOA have a high affinity for binding to B-lipoproteins and liver fatty acidbinding protein. Several studies on animals have shown that these compounds can interfere with fatty acid metabolism and may deregulate metabolism of lipids and lipoproteins (EFSA 2008; EPA 2009c).
  • In May 2006, the EPA Science Advisory Board suggested that PFOA cancer data are consistent with the EPA guidelines for the Carcinogen Risk Assessment descriptor “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” EPA is still evaluating this information and additional research pertaining to the carcinogenicity of PFOA (EPA 2006b, 2013a).
  • The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has classified PFOA as a Group A3 carcinogen — confirmed animal carcinogen with unknown relevance to humans (ACGIH 2002).
  • In a retrospective cohort mortality study of more than 6,000 PFOA-exposed employees at one plant, results identified elevated standardized mortality ratios for kidney cancer and a statistically significant increase in diabetes mortality for male workers. The study noted that additional investigations are needed to confirm these findings (DuPont 2006; Lau and others 2007).
  • Analysis of U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey representative study samples indicate that higher concentrations of serum PFOA and PFOS are associated with thyroid disease in the U.S. general adult population. Further analysis is needed to identify the mechanisms underlying this association (Melzer and others 2010).
  • Epidemiologic studies have shown an association between PFOS exposure and bladder cancer; however, further research and analysis are needed to understand this association (Alexander and others 2004; Lau and others 2007).

A year ago Southern Fishing News contacted ADPH Environmental Toxicologist, Dr. John Guarisco, regarding why warning signs had not been posted at access points/ramps on Wheeler Lake to inform the public. Dr. Guarisco responded to our question by telling us signs are not posted about advisories since ADPH posts the advisories on their website. He also pointed out that advisories change from time to time negating the need for posting warning signs. This particular advisory has been in effect for three years but only publicized this year (in 2015). Maybe the recent advisory by the EPA will be enough to warrant warning signs being posted.

Now, local municipal water departments are telling residents to not drink the water from their faucets (West Morgan and East Lawrence counties, west and downstream from the origins of the toxins, of Decatur, Alabama). On the other hand, Governor Bentley is saying there is nothing wrong with the water and the water is safe to drink. Is there some spin and dodge going on here?

The EPA instructed authorities with levels of the chemicals in drinking water above the health advisory amount to notify

Photo by B.A.S.S.

Photo by B.A.S.S.

their customers and take steps to lower the levels. The EPA said the chemicals may be associated with various types of cancer, with developmental problems for fetuses and breast-fed infants, and other health problems.

The Decatur Daily noted on their website that West Morgan-East Lawrence customers were notified by mail that water sample tests have found levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) that put the system under a health advisory from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ironically, Decatur Utilities has offered to supply the contaminated water systems to the west with water treated by the Decatur water treatment  plant. Let’s see, the Decatur waste treatment plant, that has no effective way to remove the toxic PFOA and PFOS from the water and is one of the sources for the Wheeler Lake contamination, is going to be happy to supply contaminated water to replace the already contaminated water?  Have we got that right?

The Decatur waste treatment plant along with industries to the west of Decatur, including 3M, have also been pegged as the sources for the toxins contaminating Wheeler Lake.

Drinking the PFOA and PFOS contaminated water is not the only hazard. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the chemicals present in the water can absorbed thru the skin with the devastating results noted above. Handling fish exposed to the toxins also comes with a gamble. A past advisory published said the public should not eat more than one fish from contaminated water a year. Exactly how does the public determine if the fish they caught has been in contaminated water. A read of our PFOS Part Two provides some scientific data on the extent of how far a fish roams. In addition, was the water pumped into a fisherman’s livewell on Wheeler Lake toxin-free or contaminated. Perhaps the ADPH could provide boaters and angler with a test kit to determine if the water is safe or not.

Meanwhile, avoid the south side of Wheeler Lake from Dry Creek, just below Ingalls Harbor, and seven miles downstream, roughly across the lake from Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant (mile marker 303 to mile marker 296).

Will the publicity of the toxic water have an impact with the major bass tournament organizations like B.A.S.S. and the FLW? The advisories have not curtailed events on Wheeler Lake with the exception of individual fishermen and area bass clubs.

Now that the EPA Advisory (and a lawsuit filed on behalf of the affected water systems) has the attention of the governor, the ADPH and ADEM maybe the issue will be seriously addressed and resolved. But don’t hold your breath.


One Comment

  1. Don Gowen says:

    ONE OF THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE AND ON-TARGET ARTICLES WE HAVE SEEN ON THIS HIGHLY IMPORTANT ISSUE TO FOLKS HERE IN NORTH ALABAMA AND SOUTHERN TENNESSEE – AND OUR NATION. Hopefully, our political leaders will have the courage and fortitude to tackle this problem and resolve it. It has been too long that industry and governmental units have withdrawn water from the Tennessee River, used it and discharged it back into the river less pure than when it was withdrawn. There is no authority and right to pollute the streams of our nation.