New Jersey on Tuesday became the first state to regulate the PFAS class of chemicals that has been linked to cancer and other illnesses, but which is not regulated by the federal government. This despite a growing national focus on risks to public health from the chemicals in drinking water.
The state Department of Environmental Protection formally adopted a plan to set a “maximum contaminant limit” (MCL) for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), which was used in consumer products such as nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics. Although it was phased out by U.S. manufacturers, it persists in some water systems.
The DEP’s action, published Tuesday in the New Jersey Register, concludes a four-year period of research into PFNA by state scientists. It will require water system operators to comply with the new limit of 0.013 micrograms per liter, stricter than the state’s previous standard, which was only advisory.
Operators of public water systems using groundwater to serve up to 10,000 people will have to start testing for the chemical in the first quarter of next year. Systems using surface water and those serving more than 10,000 people must start testing in the first quarter of 2020. Any operator detecting the chemical as low as 0.002 micrograms per liter will have to do quarterly monitoring even though the MCL is much higher.
Any supplier that finds its water exceeding the new limit will be expected to comply within a year, according to the rule, which amends the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Operators may be subject to administrative orders by the DEP if it concludes that prompt action is needed to protect public health.
But the DEP will be able to extend the deadline for compliance with the rule if there is no imminent threat to public health, and if more time is needed to build a new treatment plant, the rule said.
The rule was adopted on August 2, only five days before it would have expired under DEP rules. It becomes the first MCL for a new contaminant adopted by the DEP since 1996.
Advocates for tighter controls on PFNA and related chemicals welcomed the new rule and said it underlines New Jersey’s national leadership on the issue in the absence of federal regulation.
“Today the state has met the challenge to protect people from exposure to PFNA, one of the most toxic perfluorinated compounds known,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and a longtime campaigner for strict limits on the chemicals. “This historic moment has been a long time coming and at times looked impossible, but communities persevered in their demand for clean water.”
The chemical was found in 2.5 percent of New Jersey’s public water systems, much higher than the national rate of only 0.2 percent, according to a 2015 study by the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists that recommends PFAS health limits to the DEP.
An earlier study by the DEP found PFNA and related chemicals in 67 percent of 31 municipal systems tested across the state in 2009 and 2010. The highest level of PFNA was found near the South Jersey town of Paulsboro where Solvay Specialty Polymers used the chemical between 1985 and 2010.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues only health advisories on the chemicals and has been under pressure from health advocates to set a national standard. In the spring, the EPA began a national “listening tour” of some affected sites such as the eastern Pennsylvania town of Horsham where the chemicals were found at high levels because of their presence in firefighting foams at nearby military bases.
In New Jersey, PFAS chemicals have also been found at high levels in waterways near the Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst Joint Base, which also used the foam.
Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said at a national PFAS summit earlier this year that the agency will look at whether to regulate the chemicals.
But the Environmental Working Group, a national advocacy and research group, said the absence of EPA regulation on the issue exposes people to health risks in drinking water.
“This is another significant state action that stands in stark contrast to the federal government, which continues to drag its feet, leaving millions of Americans vulnerable to PFAS water contamination,” said the EWG’s senior scientist, David Andrews.
New Jersey advocates have pressed the DEP to speed up its adoption of rules on PFNA and related chemicals, noting that the DWQI began working on PFAS in 2014. But the implementation of the PFNA rule, and the DEP’s current evaluation of two other PFAS chemicals, signals that the Murphy administration is working at a quicker pace than its predecessor under Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Campaigners accused Christie of shutting down the DWQI for almost four years until it began its current work on PFAS in 2014.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the new rule “a win for clean water and public health” but he called for stricter standards on all PFAS chemicals.
“New Jersey has serious problems with PFAS,” Tittel said in a statement. “Establishing standards for these chemicals will help clean up our groundwater from toxins.”
The DEP also set a maximum contaminant limit for the chemical 1,2,3 TCP, a chemical formerly used in pesticides, degreasers, and varnishes, which is already regulated by California as a human carcinogen.
The DEP set a limit of 0.03 micrograms per liter for TCP, which has been found in municipal wells in the South Jersey communities of Moorestown and Maple Shade, both of which are in the process of treating for the chemical.
But the Sierra Club’s Tittel said the TCP limit is too high to protect public health, and noted that the DWQI’s draft recommendation for the chemical is just 5 milligrams per liter.