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‘Forever chemicals’ not detected in Wichita’s city water as EPA considers more stringent regulations

Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service
Wichita has been testing the city's drinking water for PFAS since 2021, and it has not been detected.

The city says it has been testing for PFAS chemicals annually since 2021, and none have been detected.

Wichita’s public drinking water supply already meets the new standards proposed by the federal government for regulation of a man-made chemical, according to a city spokesperson.

PFAS are a class of chemicals used to make products like nonstick cookware and water-repellent clothing. According to the EPA, these “forever chemicals,” which have been around since the 1940s, break down very slowly.

The federal government is considering stricter regulations of the chemicals in drinking water because they may be harmful to human health by decreasing fertility and increasing the risk of certain cancers.

Wichita has tested its drinking water for PFAS annually since 2021, according to city spokesperson Megan Lovely. None of the six chemicals that may be regulated under the proposed rules have been detected in water the city provides, she said.

“These samples were not required – this was proactive monitoring,” Lovely wrote in an email to KMUW.

A 2019 report by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) inventoried suspected PFAS locations throughout the state, with 241 appearing in Sedgwick County. It included businesses or institutions like fire stations that may have used PFAS.

A map of suspected PFAS locations in Sedgwick County
Kansas Department of Health and Environment
A map of suspected PFAS locations in Sedgwick County

While the chemicals may not be in the city’s drinking water supply, PFAS chemicals could be present in groundwater wells, said Susan Erlenwein, director of environmental resources at the Sedgwick County Health Department.

“If they’re really concerned about a location on that map, and they live near it, they might want to get the water tested,” said Erlenwein of those who rely on groundwater wells.

The Sedgwick County Health Department does not offer water testing, but Erlenwein said private water sampling companies might.

Another KDHE report noted that the department would begin proactive sampling for PFAS in groundwater at suspected sources across the state in 2022. A spokesperson from KDHE did not respond to a request for comment regarding whether the sampling took place last year.

McConnell Air Force Base is one site of likely PFAS contamination because a firefighting foam containing PFAS was used in training exercises there between 1972 and 1990. Testing in 2022 found groundwater levels of some PFAS chemicals on base that are hundreds of times higher than the proposed regulations would allow.

A risk evaluation determined it likely that the contaminated groundwater came in contact with humans – within 4 miles of the site were drinking water wells with detected contaminants.

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.