Photo via Unsplash

[UPDATED 9/16 with chart, map]

If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s something in the water, well, there is.

A Charleston federal courtroom is the site of major national litigation over so-called forever chemicals, technically known as PFAs, or “per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.” U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has been presiding over and managing a large number of related water pollution cases. More than 5,000 plaintiffs have filed PFAs-related lawsuits, according to news reports. 

The local connection to these cases also is yielding another concern — whether PFAs that have seeped into tap water make it safe to drink. 

PFAs are used to resist “grease, oil, water and heat,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. PFAs can be found in household items like rain jackets and non-stick cookware, and they are highly concentrated in firefighting foam, or AFFF. They’re colloquially known as “forever chemicals” because of their almost indestructible properties. And in Charleston, they’ve most definitely stuck around. 

They’re in local drinking water, but it’s safe, said Charleston Water System (CWS) spokesman Mike Saia.

“We believe 100% that our water is safe to drink,” he said. “If people are considering using a filter, we try to inform them to make that decision by publishing an annual water report, which is easily accessible on our website.” 

In May, the utility, which serves about a half million people in the Charleston area, reported concentrations of two PFA subtypes (PFOS and PFOA) at 4.2 parts per trillion (ppt) and 5.2 ppt, respectively, in its drinking water.  [The chart below offers less recent 2020 data.]

Right now, there is no federal standard for PFAs in drinking water. Some states have their own regulations, but South Carolina does not. However, earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a national standard for an enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 4 ppt for PFOS and PFOA, though the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) — defined as “the maximum level of a contaminant in drinking water where there are no known or anticipated negative health effects allowing for a margin of safety” — is 0 ppt for both. An MCL is the “maximum level allowed” and should be “as close as feasible to the MCLG, according to the agency.

If the new regulation were to become a reality, the Charleston area’s drinking water measurements would be above the MCL, which means action would be required to reduce contamination. 

CWS Board Chair Thomas Pritchard told the Charleston City Paper that the agency “started testing for those things before most utilities in the country did, and we’ve been on top of it all along.”

Ongoing litigation 

In a 2021 complaint at the U.S. District Court in Charleston, former U.S. Navy firefighter Michael Sloane of Spring, Texas, alleged that his exposure to firefighting foam at military installations, including the Charleston Naval Base, was “directly and proximately” to blame for his testicular cancer.  

The complaint is part of the large group of similar cases managed by a single federal court and presided over by Gergel. Plaintiffs are seeking damages from major PFAs producers, such as 3M and Dupont, for allegedly knowing about the harms their chemicals would cause to individuals, property, natural resources and drinking water. 

Locations across the state that have test results for forever chemicals. Image from Environmental Working Group; used with permission.

Two most recent settlements include a tentative $10.3 billion to $12.5 billion in damages from 3M and a $1.185 billion from Dupont to public water suppliers nationwide. These settlements still require court approval. 

CWS’s Pritchard said the utility’s water treatment and wastewater treatment facilities were plaintiffs in the litigation that was suing PFAs makers because “we recognize that the cost going forward for treatment and future impacts is significant.”

There’s also a separate statewide lawsuit filed by S.C. Attorney General Alan Willson. The complaint is pursuing legal action against companies like 3M and Dupont for allegedly having “misled the public” about the harmful effects of PFAs. Documents from the nonprofit national nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) show manufacturers knew PFAs “posed health risks” as early as the 1960s — and many are still producing them. 

But with this suit, there is a caveat that might impact plaintiffs like Sloane, the firefighter: The state’s lawsuit “expressly excludes … contamination or injury related to AFFF or AFFF products.” AFFF is the “primary source of PFAs at military installations,” according to EWG. But it reported the Department of Defense (DoD) also knew that PFAs might be dangerous
— and as early as the 1970s. Until the AFFF completes its phase-out by October 2023, some firefighters are continuing to use it, according to one news report. 

Current groundwater contamination 

One base where Sloane believes he was exposed to AFFF was the Charleston Naval Base, which includes the Naval Shipyard, all of which closed in 1996. But it’s still rife with contamination — in the groundwater. The Charleston Naval Shipyard in 2022 reported a measurement of 290 ppt for PFOS and 490 ppt for PFOA. In other words, the PFOA reading was over 100 times greater than the proposed MCL. 

The groundwater at the area’s active duty base, Joint Base Charleston, displayed an exponentially higher PFA concentration in recent sampling. Of the 703 nationwide sites evaluated by the DoD in 2018, the base ranked 10th for the most contaminated groundwater — with a combined PFOS and PFOA ppt reading of 1.15 million. 

This toxicity affects Charleston’s surrounding environment, too, analysts say. 


“The whole joint base is going to be playing a significant factor into local contamination,” said Jared Hayes, senior EWP policy analyst at the group’s Washington, D.C. office.  

A 2019 study published in the National Library of Medicine. found higher concentrations of one major type of PFA in fish in the Ashley River than the Cooper River and Charleston Harbor. The Ashley River is directly connected by a contaminated stream to drainage from a runway at Joint Base Charleston. 

A 2022 Waterkeeper Alliance report found that South Carolina was one of six U.S. states with the highest concentrations of PFAs in its surface water. Hayes emphasized that water might also be heavy with PFAs because of industrial dumping into wastewater systems unequipped to filter them out during treatment. Industrial users are more likely to be in urban settings like Charleston, Hayes said, and like the Joint Air Force Base, “they are going to be concentrated particularly in … lower income areas.” 

“We’ve documented that there are roughly 30,000 suspected industrial users of PFAS across the country who could be releasing these things in the environment,” said Hayes. 

Huge cleanup costs 

Unfortunately, Hayes noted, the billions of dollars in tentative settlements by 3M and Dupont are just “a drop in the bucket” needed by municipalities across the country to eliminate PFAs from their drinking water and wastewater treatment. Saia said that it would “cost hundreds of millions of dollars” to bring Charleston’s drinking water below the proposed 4 ppt standard. 

As for holding the DoD accountable — well, one “can’t really sue the military,” Hayes said. Moreover, PFAs are not classified as “hazardous substances.” This means that although the DoD is following a process of investigation and eventual cleanup, Hayes said, it’s not a federal requirement. 

“It has taken a long time for many bases to see any progress whatsoever,” he added. And Joint Base Charleston is no exception.

Time is playing a role in the results of the MDL, too. In an interview with the Charleston City Paper, attorney Joe Rice of Mount Pleasant-based law firm Motley Rice spoke of a program set up to “medically monitor [PFAs plaintiffs] as time goes forward, because [the diseases linked to PFAs exposure] are latent diseases.” Nonetheless, one study of air servicemen in mid-August confirmed what Sloane alleged all along — a link between exposure to some PFAs in AFFF and testicular cancer.

Generally, though, Hayes said, we’re all being exposed to PFAs every day in our environment and tap water, despite not knowing “the long-term effects of a lot of these chemicals.”

“The [American] public is essentially being used as guinea pigs,” he added. 

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