How chemicals can make their way into groundwater

Florida had the 2nd-most residents affected by contamination in 2015

When the groundwater supply in two Brevard County cities tested positive for cancer-causing chemicals, residents demanded answers -- primarily about how the chemicals found their way into the water supply at all and how their presence would affect living in the area.

While many areas in the state of Florida are facing water issues of their own, the entire state is no stranger to chemical pollution. A report from the National Resources Defense Council states that in 2015, all 50 states and U.S. territories reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Florida ranked second in the amount of people served by contaminated water systems, with more than 7 million residents affected.

How do chemicals get into drinking water?

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, many pollutants are deposited into groundwater supplies through stormwater runoff. The runoff occurs when rain flows over areas like streets, rooftops or sidewalks and does not absorb directly into the ground, but rather flows, picking up any debris, trash, chemicals and oils and any other pollutants that can harm waterways.

In an effort to combat hazardous stormwater runoff, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has implemented a system to try to regulate discharges from three different sources.

The sources are:

  • Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems - Publicly owned water-diverting areas, like ditches, curbs, catch basins and underground pipes that discharge to Florida's surface waters. To create one of these systems, FDEP requires a permit which requires operators to follow certain procedures to reduce pollutants. The FDEP website lists some operators of these systems as "municipalities, counties, community development districts, universities, military bases or federal correctional facilities."
  • Construction activities - Sediment and other, potentially chemical, pollutants can enter waterways through construction runoff. FDEP requires a permit for any construction, under which operators must create a site-specific plan that details how they intend to minimize pollutant runoff from their project. The permit then has to be approved.
  • Industrial activities - Runoff that comes in contact with both activities and exposed materials at industrial sites can pick up pollutants. Anyone operating an industrial activity must seek a permit through the state that requires a stormwater plan to be created and kept on-site. Some permits also require monitoring data from facilities that have a "high potential to discharge a pollutant(s) at concentrations of concern."

How can chemicals in my area's water affect me?

Although government officials said the chemicals found in Satellite Beach are considered to be safe levels, some residents still raised concerns over their presence in any capacity.

The chemicals found in Satellite Beach, Perfluorooctanoic Acid and Perfluorooctanoic Sulfonate, were once used in fire suppression. An Environmental Protection Agency report on PFOA and PFOS said the two compounds have been linked to numerous health concerns in humans, including some cancers. No direct link has been found between the area's military sites and cancer development.

The NRDC report said the top most-commonly found pollutant in U.S. drinking water is disinfectants and disinfection byproducts. The second is of lead and copper, which can cause serious health problems, especially in pregnant women or young children. 

Humans are not the only ones potentially affected by contaminated water. Another NRDC study found that marine animals in some areas have a high risk of exposure to pesticide runoff. According to the study, in 2015, over 1,000 pounds of the chlorpyrifos pesticide was applied in Brevard County.

The study states "the risk of exposure is particularly pronounced in areas with an abundance of marine mammals and a heavy burden of pesticide application, like Brevard County, Florida, where an estimated 70 percent of Atlantic Coast manatees travel through the warm waterways."

Filtration options are available for most human sources of drinking water in Florida, but, among many residents, concerns over safety and the environmental impact of potentially polluted water remain.