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New Jersey Scientists Urge State to Curb Another Chemical in Drinking Water

Maximum Contaminant Limit for PFOS would help protect human health over a lifetime of exposure to the chemical, which has been linked to cancer, immune-system problems

water quality test

New Jersey scientists are urging the state to impose a strict limit on a chemical that has been linked to cancer, developmental problems, and changes to the human immune system in the latest move to curb the presence of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in drinking water.

The Drinking Water Quality Institute will this week consider a recommendation to set a limit of 13 parts per trillion (ppt) for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) as the level at which human health would be protected over a lifetime of exposure.

The limit, proposed by the DWQI’s health effects subcommittee, would be the strictest set by any state, and would build on New Jersey’s growing status as a national leader in the regulation of a family of chemicals that are found at higher concentrations in New Jersey’s drinking water than in most other places.

The plan to regulate PFOS follows similar recommendations for two related chemicals, PFNA and PFOA, which are being assigned “Maximum Contaminant Limits” (MCLs) by the Department of Environmental Protection after research by DWQI scientists over the past three years.

PFOS and other PFCs were made for consumer products like fabric coatings and nonstick cookware over more than 50 years and were phased out by the main U.S. manufacturer in the early 2000s because of concerns about their health effects.

Firefighting foam

But the chemicals are still used in some applications, notably in firefighting foam on military bases such as New Jersey’s Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst Joint Base, where nearby waterways have been contaminated.

The chemicals persist in soil, ground water, and surface water because they have stable carbon bonds that are extremely resistant to degradation in the environment, according to the DWQI panel’s report. PFCs are widespread in the environment, and have been found in fish and even in polar wildlife.

Sources include wastewater treatment plants, industrial discharge, and landfills the report said, in a draft that will now go out for public comment.

The DW QI plans represent an effort to set tough limits on a set of chemicals that have no federal regulations even though they are the subject of a health advisory by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA sets a looser level of 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA combined. New Jersey recommends “guidance levels” on some PFCs but not on PFOS.

Tightest standard in U.S.

“The proposed drinking-water standard for PFOS in New Jersey would set the most health protective standard in the country for exposure to this toxic chemical,” said Dr. David Andrews, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for tighter controls on PFCs and other contaminants. “The federal government has failed to protect Americans from PFOS contamination or set a legal limit for this contaminant and New Jersey is stepping up to protect health.”

While the new level would set a higher bar than that used by federal or other state governments, it’s still not clear whether 13 ppt is safe, given that drinking-water exposure just adds to that from other sources such as food, consumer products, and household dust, Andrews said.

An earlier study by the EWG said the human immune system could be damaged by PFOA even at extremely low levels, and the same may apply to PFOS, he said. “There may be no safe level of exposure to either in drinking water,” he said. In the absence of clearly identified source of PFOS, the main routes of exposure for humans appear to be food and house dust from the breakdown of consumer products that have used the chemical, the DWQI report said.

People who eat fish, particularly if it has been caught in waters contaminated by PFOS, may be at particular risk, it said.

Inhalation and dermal absorption from showering, dishwashing, and laundry are not seen as major sources of exposure to the chemical, the report said.

Threat to young children

But it warned that young children may be at greater risk because of their exposure to domestic environments where the chemical is more likely to occur. “Exposures to PFOS may be higher in young children than in older individuals because of age-specific behaviors such as greater drinking water and food consumption on a bod- weight basis, hand-to-mouth behavior resulting in greater ingestion of house dust, and more time spent on floors where treated carpets are found,” the 1,085-page report said.

In New Jersey, PFOS and other PFCs have been found more frequently, and at higher concentrations, than in many other states, the report said. EPA tests of public water systems from 2013-2015 found PFOS in 3.4 percent of systems, almost twice the national rate of 1.9 percent. In another set of tests from 2006-2016, PFOS was found in 42 percent of 76 public water systems.

The higher prevalence in New Jersey may be due to the proximity of its dense population to industrial sources of contamination, and because the state has worked harder than many others to detect and control the substances, advocates said.

“The proximity of drinking-water sources and residents to locations where PFOS has contaminated the water is closer than in a more rural state where populations are more spread out,” said Tracy Carluccio, of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a leading advocate for control of PFCs. “This leads to more water sources being contaminated as PFOS moves through the environment.”

Carluccio urged the full DWQI to endorse the panel’s recommendation, and for the DEP to quickly accept it. She said the DEP has been slow to adopt the DWQI’s recommendations since the current work on PFCs began in 2014.

A speedy review

“We urge a speedy process so that people who are now drinking water that is contaminated with dangerous levels of PFOS can be supplied with safe water,” Carluccio said. “People are being exposed to dangerous concentrations of PFOS every day through their drinking water and they need protection now through the adoption of a mandatory MCL.”

She said the Delaware Riverkeeper Network will be hiring an expert to evaluate the proposed limit on PFOS in drinking water, and submitting that report as part of the public-comment process.

DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said he couldn’t predict how long it would take for the PFOS proposal to become a regulation.

The public will have 30 days to comment, and that may be extended to 60 days because of the large volume of information in the DWQI study, Hajna said. After that, the DWQI will make a final recommendation to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin or his successor who will initiate the rulemaking process, during which there will be another public-comment period.

The process “will certainly carry over to the next administration,” Hajna said.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who often covers water and other environmental issues.

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