Lawmakers and environmentalists are urging the federal government to release a report recommending tight new limits on a class of chemicals that New Jersey is playing a leading role in regulating.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry indicated it is preparing to release a study saying that the PFC family of chemicals (perfluorochemicals), also known as PFAS, should be subject to much tighter restrictions than those advocated — but not required — by the Environmental Protection Agency.
That prompted officials at the EPA and the White House to warn of a public relations “nightmare” as they anticipated a clash between federal agencies over a matter of public health, according to emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists and recently published by some media outlets and advocacy groups.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), on Wednesday accused the White House of blocking the ATSDR study, and called for its release.
“Families throughout our country have a right to know about dangerous contaminants in their drinking water,” Pallone said in a statement. “The White House has once again shown that it cares more about public relations than public health by burying an HHS study that shows a class of toxic chemicals endanger human health at far lower levels than EPA previously considered safe.”
Pallone will ‘do everything’ to get report released
“While I am pleased that New Jersey already has standards close to the ATSDR recommendation, I will work with my colleagues on the Energy and Commerce Committee and throughout Congress to do everything within our power to ensure that the report is released,” Pallone said.
According to the internal EPA emails, White House officials expressed concern in January that tough new limits on PFCs were due to be proposed by the ATSDR, a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services. Since ATSDR’s limits for two of the chemicals would be as much as 10 times lower than the advisory issued by EPA, that would be tough to explain to the public, according to one of the emails from an unnamed official at the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
“The public, media and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” the email said. “We cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”
The ATSDR said in a statement on Tuesday that it is preparing to publish a “toxicological profile” of four chemicals but did not say how the recommendations would compare with the EPA’s. The agency did not respond to follow-up questions on Wednesday.
In Pennsylvania, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick has called on the EPA to respond to reports that it suppressed the ATSDR proposals. The EPA said Tuesday afternoon that it wants a “uniform” federal response to the appropriate level of PFCs in the environment and said the issue would be discussed at an EPA national summit on the chemicals next week.
That was not enough for Fitzpatrick who was expected to follow up with a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt seeking more information on the reports that the ATSDR report was blocked. The Republican Congressman’s district includes Warrington and Warminster, Pa., where high levels of PFCs in drinking water have been traced to firefighting foam on nearby military bases.
Regulations in New Jersey
In New Jersey, officials have set some of the strictest standards in the country for regulating PFCs. In 2017, the Department of Environmental Protection adopted a “maximum contaminant limit” (MCL) of 13 parts per trillion (ppt) for the chemical PFNA in drinking water, much stricter than the EPA’s advisory level, and is now working on regulation to limit a related chemical, PFOA.
PFNA was found in 2.5 percent of New Jersey’s public water systems, according to a 2015 report by the Drinking Water Quality Institute (DWQI), a panel of scientists that advises the DEP and proposes maximum health limits for different chemicals. That compared with a national rate of only 0.2 percent.
An earlier study by the DEP found PFNA and related chemicals in 67 percent of 31 municipal systems tested in 20 counties during 2009 and 2010. The highest level was found near the South Jersey town of Paulsboro, where Solvay Specialty Polymers used the chemical as a production aid before phasing it out voluntarily in 2010.
In the latest sign of New Jersey’s continuing work on PFCs, the DWQI is due to consider recommending a limit on a third chemical, PFOS, at its next meeting on May 25.
At the federal level, the EPA does not regulate PFCs but sets health advisory levels. For PFOA and PFOS combined, the agency says drinking water with less than 70 ppt should not hurt human health over a lifetime exposure.
Not good enough?
But the federal advisory level is far too high to protect public health, according to advocates such as Environmental Working Group, a Washington nonprofit which says that even very low levels of PFCs can cause illnesses including some types of cancer, low birth weight, and immune system problems.
Still, chemical companies have been pushing back against New Jersey’s tough new standards, saying the required levels are so low that companies may not be able to detect them, and warning that the regulations will increase costs.
“There aren’t a lot of labs that have the ability to analyze that level,” said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, which represents chemical manufacturers. He said the trade group has expressed concerns to the DEP about the analysis and assumptions behind its current regulatory process for PFCs.
Hart said a national standard would make more sense than state-by-state regulation. “Everyone is looking at the same data, they are just making different assumptions,” he said. “It’s concerning that different states are coming up with different numbers all over the place.”
Environmentalists have welcomed New Jersey’s steps toward tighter PFC regulation but say the federal government should be doing much more to protect public health from the chemicals whose uses included nonstick cookware and firefighting foams. They are no longer manufactured in the U.S. but persist in some water systems.
Health versus politics
“Decisions regarding the safety of our drinking water must be based on science that is protective of health, not politics or bureaucratic self-interest,” said Tracy Carluccio of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a leading advocate for tighter regulation of PFCs.
The DRN, working with an independent consultant, has proposed even stricter levels for both PFOA and PFOS than those being adopted by New Jersey and prepared by ATSDR. Carluccio said DRN has based its own recommendation on the latest science, and that appears to be what ATSDR has done too, setting aside political considerations.
Despite New Jersey’s leadership on PFC regulation, the DEP is moving too slowly on adopting a standard for PFOA, Carluccio said, noting that it is now more than a year since the DWQI sent its recommendation on that chemical to the department.
“Why are they dragging their feet? Are they backing out, despite being the national leader in scientific analysis and research on these PFC compounds?” she said.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, accused the federal government of blocking the ATSDR report at the expense of public health. “The Trump Administration is hiding these studies because they are more concerned about their image than they are about protecting our health,” he said.
Tittel said some U.S. lawmakers have been pushing for federal pre-emption of environmental standards over state regulations such as New Jersey’s PFC rules.
But Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said the state’s MCLs would not be pre-empted by any federal regulation including on military bases.