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Drinking-Water Panel Calls for Stricter Standard on Potential Carcinogen

Group of scientists, state officials, and water-company executives agree that tighter level for PFNA is needed

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An advisory panel on Monday urged the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to set a tougher standard for the presence of a potentially carcinogenic chemical in drinking water than the level previously recommended by the agency.

A subcommittee of the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a group of scientists, state officials, and water-company executives, recommended that the upper limit for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) in drinking water should be no higher than 0.013 parts per billion (ppb) in order to safeguard public health.

That recommended standard is lower than the 0.02 parts per billion that has until now been set by the DEP as a “guidance” level that indicates the standard deemed safe but which does not have regulatory force.

The chemical has been found at the guidance level or above in about 15 private water wells near the West Deptford plant of Solvay Specialty Polymers, a chemical company that previously used PFNA, and which is investigating its presence in local groundwater.

The proposed limit would also be much stricter than that found in a public well at nearby Paulsboro, which recorded the highest level, 0.096 ppb, of any location in a statewide survey of related chemicals present in public water systems during 2009 and 2010.

The panel will present its 174-page evaluation of the health risks of PFNA to the full institute at a public meeting on Wednesday, kicking off a public-comment period that is required before the DWQI makes a formal decision on whether to recommend to the DEP that the chemical is given a maximum contaminant limit, or MCL.

Setting the limit would allow the state to regulate a chemical that environmentalists say taints drinking water, and which has been linked to some cancers in humans, as well as reproductive and developmental problems in animals. PFNA has escaped federal regulation so far, although the Environmental Protection Agency has called it a contaminant of concern.

Wednesday’s meeting is the DWQI’s first in almost a year, and follows a period of nearly four years when the institute did not meet, prompting accusations by critics that it had been muzzled by Gov. Chris Christie amid pressure from chemical manufacturers who feared additional regulation.

The critics include the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that pressured the DEP to release the statewide survey, and which has led calls for controls on perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) at Paulsboro and the surrounding area.

The group’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio, said she will probably have the DWQI’s recommendation formally evaluated by an expert, but said it appears to represent progress.

“The stricter MCL has moved in the right direction, towards treatment that results in a lower maximum contaminant level, which will provide cleaner drinking water,” she said.

PFNA is one of the PFC family of manmade chemicals used in consumer products including textile coatings, stain repellants, and food packaging. In the South Jersey town of West Deptford, it was used by Solvay between 1985 and 2010.

Solvay has rejected criticism by DEP Commissioner Bob Martin that it prematurely ended an investigation into PFNA in water near its plant, and says the probe is continuing.

Around the state, different types of PFCs were found in 67 percent of 31 municipal water systems in 20 New Jersey counties during the statewide survey, which was not published until May 2014.

The survey also found perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which will be evaluated by the DWQI next, in that order, in accordance with the instructions of Commissioner Martin. PFOA, which is used in Teflon, and PFOS are potentially toxic chemicals that have been covered by provisional health advisories that were issued by the EPA in 2009.

The five-member DWQI panel, which took about a year to complete the study, said its recommendation was developed to protect water for lifetime exposure, and was based on exposing pregnant mice to PFNA for 16 days.

The study said PFNA, which is highly soluble in water, is being reduced by manufacturers, but is likely to remain in the environment for some time.

“Although the production and use of PFNA is being phased out by major U.S. manufacturers, environmental contamination and human exposure to PFNA are anticipated to continue for the foreseeable future due to its persistence, formation from precursor compounds, and the potential for continued production by other manufacturers in the U.S. and/or overseas,” the report said.

Echoing the statewide survey, the DWQI study cited a much higher incidence of PFNA in New Jersey than nationally. Among 122 public water systems tested in New Jersey by January this year, three, or 2.5 percent, were found to contain PFNA at or above the DEP’s guidance level of 0.02 ppb, the panel said.

Across the country, the chemical had been found in only 0.2 percent of public water systems as of January this year, the study said.

Drawing on studies from around the world, the team looked at the relationship of PFNA to a variety of health conditions including diabetes, cancer, reproductive and immune systems, and births. The strongest correlation was found with serum cholesterol and ALT, an enzyme found in the liver.

But it warned that the study was not primarily based on human epidemiological data so it did not evaluate evidence of causality for the human studies.

Nevertheless, the panel issued its MCL recommendation for PFNA on the basis that the chemical remains in the human body for much longer than in the rodents that were used for the study.

A separate subcommittee was charged with recommending treatment options for drinking-water sources contaminated with PFNA. Available technologies include activated carbon, which removes more than 90 percent of the chemical, as well as the same proportion of PFOA and PFOS, and membrane filtration, it said in its own report.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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