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Virginia is investigating if it's safe to eat fish caught from waterways with PFAS

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

So-called forever chemicals could be in nearly half of the country's drinking water, according to a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey. They are called PFAS, and this year the Environmental Protection Agency proposed to limit PFAS chemicals in drinking water. In Virginia, state officials want to know if a type of PFAS known as GenX is found in fish. Roxy Todd of member station Radio IQ in Roanoke waded through the local river for this report.

ROXY TODD, BYLINE: The water is beautifully clear, with thousands of snails clinging to rocks.

JASON HILL: We're at the South Fork Roanoke River just above Elliston.

TODD: Jason Hill is one of four researchers out on the river today. We're all wearing brown waders, knee-deep in the water. Across the street is the source of a chemical leak that lasted at least two years, says Sarah Baumgardner with the Western Virginia Water Authority.

SARAH BAUMGARDNER: And we found it, and it was rather surprising.

TODD: What surprised her is that this part of the river was pristine until the company ProChem added a PFAS, a forever compound known as GenX. So Roanoke's drinking water no longer comes from here, she says.

BAUMGARDNER: We stopped pulling water out of the Roanoke River, and we've just been using the water that we already had stored in our reservoir.

TODD: That will last about three years, she says. And they hope that the GenX will dilute or wash away. But it can stick to the rocks and sediment around us, and people still fish in this river. A recent study found that eating freshwater fish can potentially expose someone to PFAS. So biologist Kelly Hazlegrove dips a net into the water.

HILL: (Inaudible).

KELLY HAZLEGROVE: Ooh-hoo (ph).

HILL: Did you find another one?

HAZLEGROVE: Somebody ran over here.

HILL: All right, Mack.

HAZLEGROVE: By ran, I mean swam.

HILL: Get him. Get him, Mack.

TODD: Mack Calvert is a biology major at Roanoke College helping with the research. Today he's wearing an enormous backpack that sends electricity into the water to shock fish. That makes it easier to catch them.

MACK CALVERT: That was a nice one that just ran by us.

TODD: Calvert looks kind of like a Ghostbuster moving through the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE BEEPING)

TODD: There's a beep every time he shocks the water. They catch their first fish of the day. It has gold and brown speckles on its body.

CALVERT: A rock bass.

TODD: This bass and the other fish they catch will be sent to a lab in Richmond to be analyzed for 40 different types of PFAS compounds, including GenX. State officials have not yet issued a health advisory for this part of the river. They're still reviewing the data, which will include the results from today's catch. For NPR News, I'm Roxy Todd in the South Fork of the Roanoke River.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "CONRETE (FEAT. WESTSIDE GUNN AND TERMANOLOGY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Roxy Todd