Long-Awaited DEP Study Says PFC Contamination Widespread in State’s Water

Twenty-county survey, completed in 2010, was only released recently, despite repeated calls to make data public

Two-thirds of New Jersey’s public water systems tested in a statewide survey were found to contain perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which have been linked to some cancers in humans and reproductive and developmental problems in animals, according to a newly released survey from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The survey found that 22 of 33 samples, or 67 percent, taken from 31 municipal water systems contained the man-made chemicals, which are used in consumer products such as water and stain repellant, food packaging, and textile coatings.

The survey, which tested for 10 different PFCs, was conducted in 20 counties during 2009 and 2010 but was not published until May 1 this year despite repeated calls from the environmental group the Delaware Riverkeeper Network for the DEP to release the results.

The DRN has argued that DEP scientists should use the data to set maximum contaminant limits that would allow the state to regulate the chemicals, and limit the public’s exposure to them.

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Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, did not respond to a request for an explanation of why the survey was kept from public view for so long. Keith Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist who is the new chairman of the Drinking Water Quality Institute, which advises the DEP on water quality, said he did not know why the report had been so severely delayed.

Although most of the samples were taken in 2009 and early 2010, those water sources are still likely to be contaminated with PFCs now, said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the DRN.

PFCs are long-lived in the environment, do not biodegrade, and won’t necessarily be removed by the water suppliers because they are not required to do so even though there are recognized techniques for removal, Carluccio said.

“So if there were PFCs in 2009-2010, it is likely they are still there,” she told NJ Spotlight.

The most-often detected type of PFC was perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which was found in 18, or 55 percent, of the samples, taken from public water sources ranging from Atlantic City to New Brunswick to Paulsboro. PFOA was the most commonly found chemical in both surface and ground-water samples.

In Brick Township, and at Bondie & Sons, a Salem County business, the presence of PFOA exceeded a “guidance level” of 0.04 parts per billion set by the DEP as the upper limit for healthy consumption, based on lifetime exposure. The New Jersey level is stricter than the 0.4 ppb level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The report said the DEP is studying options for removing PFCs from public water systems, and is testing the effectiveness of granular activated carbon removal technology at the Fair Lawn Water Department in Bergen County, and the Merchantville-Pennsauken Water Commission in Camden County.

“The results obtained through this study will be used in conjunction with previously obtained data to better understand the occurrence of these compounds in order for the department to determine if there is a need for further evaluation and/or regulation of PFOA and other PFCs in New Jersey drinking water supplies,” the report said.

The DRN, which obtained the data in the report in July 2013 after an Open Public Record Act request, said the study shows the need for more testing. DRN posted the data on its website, and urged the DEP to act on the data in a letter.

“DEP should … do another occurrence study now, paying for the testing of public systems and private water wells themselves,” said the DRN’s Carluccio. “We asked them to do that back in 2013 after we got the data but they haven’t done it, even after all the concern shown by the municipalities.”

She argued the DEP to “go after” the sources of the contamination after any threat to public health has been identified.

Tests in nine locations also found PFNA, another type of PFC. The highest concentration of PFNA, 0.096 parts per billion, was found in Paulsboro, where state officials have since advised people to use bottled water rather than public water for young children.

A separate investigation by the Borough of Paulsboro last September found water from one of the town’s three public wells contained PFNA at 0.15 parts per billion.

For PFNA, the DEP has proposed setting a health-based guidance level at 0.02 parts per billion but that is at odds with a much stricter 0.0017 ppb standard advocated by Fardin Oliaei, a consultant hired by the DRN to evaluate the DEP proposal.

“We conclude that the proposed NJDEP Groundwater PFNA criterion … would not be protective of adults,” Oliaei wrote in a report released by DRN on May 1.

More tests for six PFCs in public water systems to meet requirements by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found three were higher in New Jersey than elsewhere in the U.S.

The EPA-compliant data, based on tests at 165 large public water systems in New Jersey, showed that PFOA was found in 9.3 percent of the state’s testing sites, compared with only 1.4 percent nationally. Meanwhile, PFNA was found in 2.7 percent of New Jersey locations, compared with 0.1 percent nationally.

The EPA data was presented to the DWQI on April 29 by Gloria Post, a DEP scientist. The panel, at its first meeting since September 2010, said it will test for, treat, and assess the health impacts of PFCs as it resumes its work after a break of almost four years.

A DWQI subcommittee on the health effects of PFCs is expected to reconsider the state’s guidance level on PFOA. The DRN’s Carluccio predicted the 0.04 ppb level will be lowered in light of additional studies since 2010.

The DEP said it asked all water systems where PFCs were found to sample their treated water quarterly for a year to determine whether the chemicals were still present after treatment.

But Post said PFCs levels are likely to be similar before and after water treatment because the chemicals are not removed by conventional treatment processes.

The DEP said nothing about the sources of the contamination at different sites, while Post’s presentation said potential sources had been identified at some sites though were unknown at others.

In Paulsboro, state and city officials say the suspected source of PFC contamination is the chemical manufacturer Solvay Solexis which has a factory in nearby Deptford. The company has been working with DEP to sample local water sources, and denied in January that local PFC contamination represents a danger to public health.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, working with the New Jersey Department of Health, said in early April it will conduct its own investigation into the presence of perfluorinated chemicals in the South Jersey town’s water.

Some types of PFCs can cause testicular and kidney cancer, and increased cholesterol in humans, and are linked to reproductive and developmental problems in animals, the state health department has said.