Two national reports on drinking-water contamination by the toxic PFC family of chemicals are adding to pressure for more detection and cleanup at affected sites, including those in New Jersey, and for tougher regulation by state and federal governments, amid growing concern about the chemicals’ effects on public health.
One report, by the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters (EST), showed New Jersey’s drinking water has one of the highest U.S. rates of contamination with PFCs such as PFOA and PFNA, and found a correlation between water contamination and sites such as industrial facilities, wastewater plants, and military bases that may be using the chemicals.
The other, from Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), found that exposure to PFCs in children was linked to reduced immune system function that persists into adolescence.
The author of the EHP paper, Philippe Grandjean of Harvard University, urged the EPA to set much tougher standards for two PFCs — PFOA and PFOS — than it currently does through a nonenforceable health advisory level.
The studies, both published Tuesday, are the latest to suggest that current regulation at the state and federal level is not strong enough to fully protect public health from the chemicals, and they reinforce calls by a number of environmental groups and, increasingly, state lawmakers, for stricter limits on the hazardous chemicals.
The EST report did a spatial analysis of EPA data on the prevalence of six types of PFCs, and found that 13 states including New Jersey accounted for 75 percent of those detected nationwide.
New Jersey had the second-highest frequency of detection after California among the 13 states, the report said.
“This is confirming that, when you take a national look at facilities that are suspected of having used or disposed of PFCs, you see a correlation between surrounding drinking water being contaminated and the presence of these sites,” said David Andrews, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that contributed to the report.
Andrews said the report fills an “information gap” that should have been filled by federal agencies such as the EPA.
An earlier analysis by EWG found that 12 New Jersey water systems supplying 1.3 million people exceeded a guidance level for PFOA set by the Department of Environmental Protection at various times over the past nine years.
State officials have been under pressure from environmental groups and some lawmakers to regulate the chemicals, which have been linked to some cancers and elevated cholesterol in humans and developmental problems in animals.
Some of the chemicals, used in the manufacture of products such as nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, have been phased out in the United States but have left behind a legacy of contamination in some locations such as Paulsboro, where high levels of the chemical PFNA, a type of PFC, have been found near the facility of Solvay Specialty Chemicals.
The phased-out chemicals have in some cases been replaced by new types of PFCs (perfluorocarbons), that perform the same functions.
Andrews said the report connects PFC case studies such as Solvay and a Dupont plant in Parkersburg, WV, and puts them in a national context.
The EST report said PFC contamination is positively related to the sites studied.
“The number of industrial sites that manufacture or use these compounds, the number of military fire-training areas, and the number of wastewater treatment plants are all significant predictors of PFAS detection frequencies and concentrations in public water supplies,” the report said.
The authors urged the military to find alternative materials to use during fire-fighting practices.
“During fire-fighting practice drills, large volumes of these toxic chemicals wash into surface and ground waters and can end up in our drinking water,” said Arlene Blum, co-author of the study and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.
New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel that advises the Department of Environmental Protection, is expected to recommend a safe level of PFOA in drinking water – a Maximum Contaminant Limit — to the DEP in coming weeks. After that, the panel of scientific advisers to the DEP is expected to begin work on PFOS.
Critics accuse the DEP of ignoring another recommendation by the DWQI more than a year ago, setting a health limit for PFNA.
The DEP’s delay prompted state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) to introduce a bill in late July that would require the DEP to adopt DWQI recommendations on a list of chemicals, including PFNA, that the department has not acted on since 2005.
DEP officials were not immediately available to comment on the new reports.
Nationally, some 6 million people served by 66 public water systems have at least one sample showing PFOA and PFOS above the EPA’s health advisory level, according to the EST report.