This is a portion of the Columbus Water Works’ water treatment facility on River Road in Columbus, Georgia.

This is a portion of the Columbus Water Works’ water treatment facility on River Road in Columbus, Georgia.

Credit: Mike Haskey/Ledger-Inquirer

Drinking water in Columbus contains traces of toxic chemical compounds, commonly referred to as ‘forever chemicals’, slightly above proposed federal standards.

But to remedy the problem, Columbus Water Works recently launched a pilot program to remove these substances from the water.

Officially called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), they are called forever chemicals because they persist in the environment.

Prolonged exposure to forever chemicals increases the chances for health risks, like cancer or heart disease, because they accumulate in the body, said Dr. Dana Barr, a professor of environmental health at Emory University.

“They remain circulating in your blood rather than being deposited in fat tissue or anything like that,” she said. “So, the degradation is slow.”

Although the traces of PFAS found in Columbus’ drinking water is slightly above limits the EPA proposed, it would take about double the amount of PFAS detected in the water for there to be heightened health risks, Barr said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking steps to propose legally enforceable level maximums for six forever chemicals known to be in drinking water; the presence of these substances have been found in drinking water across Georgia, according to reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

More than 60% of the country’s population is drinking water contaminated with PFAS, according to Scientific American.

But understanding the amount of exposure is not as simple as just testing the water, Barr said, because people can get exposed from multiple sources.

“Most people probably have something stain resistant in their home,” she said. “Whether it be carpeting, furniture or clothing that would contribute to it.”



The EPA’s proposed standard would regulate perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic (PFOS), which are two of the most concerning forever chemicals.

Substances like forever chemicals are measured in parts per trillion (ppt). One ppt in water is equal to a drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The EPA’s proposed standards for forever chemicals would require levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water be at 4.0 ppt or less.

The traces of forever chemicals in the city’s drinking water are at low levels, Columbus Water Works vice-president Vic Burchfield told the Ledger-Enquirer, and therefore a small risk to residents’ health.

Columbus Water Works tests its water monthly for forever chemicals and detects traces as low as 3.8 ppt and as high as 13 ppt, Burchfield said.

Vic Burchfield

Vic Burchfield is a senior vice president at the Columbus Water Works in Columbus, Georgia.

Credit: Mike Haskey/Ledger-Inquirer

It’s important to note that the maximum contaminant level standards set by the EPA are meant to protect people over a lifetime, Burchfield said. This means that with the traces of forever chemicals in Columbus’ being slightly above the limit, he said, it still has a low impact on health.

“So a brief or intermittent exposure will have a minimal impact on health because the limits are set for the long term,” Birchfield said. “We try to help our customers understand that you have to look at it from a whole life perspective.”



Many health risks have been associated with forever chemicals, Barr said, most notably

“So changes in your lipid level,” Barr said. “Which could potentially affect heart disease, for example.”

Forever chemicals are also associated with various cancers, Barr said. 

Other health effects, according to the EPA, include:

  • Reproductive effects, such as increased high blood pressure in pregnant people
  • Developmental effects or delays in babies and young children
  • Reduced ability of the body’s ability to fight infections
  • Reduced vaccine effectiveness
  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones, including thyroid hormones
  • Increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Liver damage

Public health professionals closely monitor vulnerable segments of the population including children between 9 and 11 years old and pregnant people, Barr said.

An Emory University-led study into the exposure of pregnant women to forever chemicals is one of the first to detect PFAS in newborns and shows exposure to the chemicals increase the likelihood of preterm birth.

Individuals concerned about exposure to forever chemicals should try to limit the use of stain resistant products, Barr said, and avoid eating foods, like microwavable popcorn, that come in stain-resistant packaging.

People can also purchase water filters for their home, she said, but it’s imperative that they change filters as recommended.

“If you don’t do that, then when the filter has reached its capacity then they start leaching off in large amounts,” Barr said. “And you might be exposed to larger amounts at one time.”



Manufacturing companies used PFAS as early as the 1940s when making household products like paints, stains and non-stick cookware.

Although forever chemicals were phased out of production 20 years ago, they remain in the environment because of their chemical make-up.

These stained-glass windows are in a historic structure on the grounds of the Columbus Water Works treatment facility on River Road in Columbus, Georgia.

These stained-glass windows are in a historic structure on the grounds of the Columbus Water Works treatment facility on River Road in Columbus, Georgia.

Credit: Mike Haskey/Ledger-Inquirer

PFOS phased out of production in 2002, according to the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health, and U.S. manufacturers eliminated PFOA at the end of 2015.

These long carbon chain forever chemicals, known as “legacy” PFAS, are in the water systems, said Jess Sterling, technical director of Chattahoochee Riverkeepers (CRK).

Sterling and her team at CRK study where the sources of PFAS are. CRK works to highlight broken infrastructure to detect sediment and E.Coli presence.

However, growing concerns about forever chemicals in the public and increasing research into PFAS pushed CRK to expand their work.

“The power of our work is frequency and geography,” Sterling said. “But the PFAS monitoring isn’t as widespread as sediment or E.Coli testing because it’s more expensive.”

CRK collected 10 PFAS samples to send to a private lab in the last year. Sterling and her team found that forever chemicals are mainly coming from waterways near landfills and waste water outfalls.

The paints, water repellents, cleaning products, food packaging, that were dumped in landfills have sat in landfills for decades could be the source of legacy PFAS leeching into waterways.

“The PFAS are where the people are,” she said.



In anticipation of the proposed EPA standard for forever chemicals in the drinking water, Columbus Water Works is evaluating six advanced technologies to remove PFAS from the water, Burchfield said.

Technologies tested in the pilot program include reverse osmosis, ion exchange and granular activated carbon.

“The pilot program will study the effectiveness of our water here in Columbus and determine which one of those is the most effective for our treatment plants,” Burchfield said.

The pilot program is scheduled to be completed in December 2025, he said, and the installation of the selected treatment technology will be scheduled after that point. It is expected to take about two to three years, he said, and is tentatively scheduled to be completed around 2028.

Water companies across Georgia and the nation are working through the same problem, he said. The city of Rome, Georgia, which received $75 million from a manufacturing company settlement for PFAS contamination in its environment, is designing a new reverse osmosis water treatment facility.

The new facility will cost the city in excess of $150 million.

Once Columbus Water Works determines which technology will be best for its customers, then the company will pay the expenses using Georgia Environmental Finance Authority loans and municipal bonds, Burchfield said.

“We use a 5-year forecast on our rate model,” he said. “And we’ve got a proposed rate increase in the works right now.”

For the past 10 years, including the proposed rate increase for 2024, has been 3.81%, Burchfield said. The annual rate increases factor in the anticipated expenses to treat forever chemicals, he said.

Columbus Water Works believes that its customers can handle the smaller increases better than a large lump sum increase later on, Burchfield said.

ohn Otto, superintendent of water production for the Columbus Water Works in Columbus, Georgia, gives a tour of the water treatment facility in Columbus.

ohn Otto, superintendent of water production for the Columbus Water Works in Columbus, Georgia, gives a tour of the water treatment facility in Columbus.

Credit: Mike Haskey/Ledger-Inquirer

Water rates in Columbus are comparable to other Georgia cities like Augusta and Savannah, he said.

Burchfield is confident Columbus Water Works will be able to meet the EPA’s standards with the advanced technology being tested in the pilot program.

“Water companies all over the country are dealing with this issue,” Burchfield said. “And here in Columbus, we are very proactive. We’re way out in front of this issue, and, comparatively speaking, our levels are lower in mid-Georgia and our area.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Ledger-Inquirer.