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Tough New Limit Proposed for a Toxic Chemical in New Jersey's Drinking Water

If adopted, the new standard for PFOA would make the state a national leader in regulation of the chemical

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Environmentalists on Tuesday welcomed a proposal by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute to set a tough new limit on the presence of PFOA, a toxic chemical, in drinking water, saying that if adopted by the Christie administration, it would make the state a national leader in regulation of the chemical.

The DWQI, a scientific panel that advises the Department of Environmental Protection, recommended a maximum contaminant limit (MCL) of 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for the chemical. This is significantly lower than guidance levels of 70 ppt and 40 ppt set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey DEP, respectively.

The chemical – formally called perfluorooctanoic acid – was commonly used for non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and firefighting foam, and was phased out by eight major U.S. manufacturers following a voluntary agreement with the EPA in 2006 with the goal of eliminating it by 2015. Other manufacturers, especially outside the U.S., continue to make the chemical, adding to water contamination that is left over from previous production, the DWQI said.

PFOA in public water systems may expose people to kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, thyroid disorders and hypertension in pregnancy, according to an EPA health advisory in May this year. Animal tests have found the developing fetus is particularly sensitive to PFOA, which also has been linked to liver and kidney toxicity and immune-system problems.

The chemical was found in 12 New Jersey water systems supplying water to 1.3 million people at levels above the state’s guidance level at various times over the last nine years, the DEP said in January.

In 2014, a long-delayed DEP report said it found PFOA and other perfluorochemicals (PFCs) in two-thirds of New Jersey water systems sampled in 2009 and 2010. PFOA was the most common type of PFC, found in 55 percent of water systems, including Atlantic City, New Brunswick and Paulsboro.

In its latest report issued on Monday, the DWQI said PFOA can enter the environment from firefighting foams; disposal in landfills; wastewater treatment plant discharge; street and storm water runoff; and land application of biosolids, industrial solid waste, and wastewater. On an individual level, sources of exposure to PFOA include treated fabrics, protective sprays and waxes, and cosmetics and personal care products, DWQI said.

Advocates for a lower limit on PFCs said the proposal represents significant progress after several years of inaction by the state.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an outspoken advocate for tougher limits on PFOA and other members of the PFC family of chemicals, welcomed the DWQI’s proposal as a milestone in regulation of the chemical. The network’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio, called the recommendation “the biggest step” by any government entity toward setting a safe drinking water standard for the chemical. “If DEP follows through and adopts it, it will be the strictest in the nation and set a new bar for the removal of these toxins from our drinking water,” she said.

The DWQI is expected to formally adopt the recommendation at a meeting on Sept. 22 and then put it out for public comment for 60 days. Comments will be reviewed by the DWQI’s working groups and any changes will be incorporated into a final report before being submitted to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.

If Martin accepts the recommendation, he will begin the process of setting a MCL, which will allow the state to regulate the chemical for the first time.

The DEP has not publicly responded to an earlier recommendation by DWQI for PFNA, another PFC chemical, which the panel made in mid-2015.

Dr. Keith Cooper, chair of the DWQI, said the proposed standard represents a strong protection for the public, and if adopted will be one of the strongest in the nation. “From a scientific point of view, we feel pretty confident about this,” he told NJ Spotlight.

The DWQI’s three working groups – on health effects, treatment, and detection – have determined that the new limit would be achievable, Cooper said. Any water system that finds PFOA at levels above the limit can treat it with granular activated carbon filters, he said. “There are technologies out there that can be employed,” he said.

Without the carbon technology, regular treatment of affected public water supplies will fail to remove PFOA, the DWQI said.

After being formally recommended to the DEP, the new MCL will enter the public domain, and may become a national benchmark because it is stricter than those recommended by the EPA and many other states, Cooper said. “This information will become available to the federal agencies and all other states which are dealing with this issue,” he said. “They can look at our evaluations and compare it with what they have done.”

The Environmental Working Group, a Washington DC-based group that has conducted a national analysis on PFOA, welcomed the DWQI’s proposed limit but highlighted research calling for an even tighter limit.

“There is science that indicates that, in order to be protective of possible effects to the immune system, a safe level in drinking water may be even lower still,” said David Andrews, senior scientist with the EWG. “The continued downward march of what scientists consider to be a safe level in drinking water should raise some concerns for places that are contaminated,” he said.

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