Scientists are recommending that New Jersey adopt the nation’s strictest limit on a toxic chemical that was once used for nonstick cookware and flame-resistant fabrics and is now linked with certain cancers, high cholesterol, and immune-system problems.
The Drinking Water Quality Institute, which advises the Department of Environmental Protection, formally said on Friday that New Jersey’s drinking water should have no more than 13 parts per trillion (ppt) of the chemical PFOS, a part of the perflurochemical family (PFCs), also known as PFAS, in order to protect public health.
If adopted by the DEP, the proposal would become a “maximum contaminant limit” (MCL), which would allow regulators to require public water systems and private well owners to keep their water below that level.
PFOS is the third type of PFC to be evaluated by the DWQI since 2014. The panel has also recommended strict limits on PFNA, which was accepted by the DEP, and PFOA, which the DEP has not yet adopted more than a year after the recommendation was made.
Higher levels in New Jersey
The chemicals have been found in New Jersey more often and in higher concentrations than in many other states. EPA tests from 2013-2015 found PFOS in 3.4 percent of New Jersey public water systems, almost twice the national rate of 1.9 percent. In other tests from 2006-2016, PFOS was found in more than half of 76 public systems.
While the PFOS proposal was in line with the DWQI’s draft report on the chemical late last year, it refocused attention on New Jersey as a national leader in the regulation of PFCs during the same week that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called a summit to discuss possible national regulation of the chemicals. The summit was attended by New Jersey officials, including acting DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe.
The recommended legal limit for PFOS in New Jersey is much stricter than a health-advisory level issued by the EPA, which recommends — but does not require — a level of 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA individually or combined.
Lack of federal leadership
Advocates for tighter control of PFCs have long urged the EPA to regulate the chemicals but have in the past few years been relying more heavily on states, especially New Jersey, to set public health standards in the absence of federal leadership.
Still, EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt announced last week that the agency will look at whether to regulate PFOS and PFOA, and said the EPA will draw up a national management plan on the chemicals by the end of the year.
But he rejected campaigners’ calls for the release of a study on PFCs by another federal agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which has been reportedly withheld by the federal government because it recommends PFC limits that are much tighter than those published by EPA.
Pruitt said in a letter to Pennsylvania Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick last week that he does not have the authority to release the study from ATSDR, which is a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Fitzpatrick and a bipartisan group of 12 other U.S. Representatives urged Pruitt to release the ATSDR study, saying they were concerned by reports that it had been suppressed. In New Jersey, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat, has also called for the ATSDR study to be published.
Internal EPA emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists show an unidentified White House official warning of a “public relations nightmare” if officials are forced to explain a wide difference between EPA and ATSDR recommendations on PFCs.
Calculating a safe daily dose
In New Jersey, the DWQI also recommended a “reference dose” for PFOS — a calculation of how much of the chemical is safe per day based on a person’s body weight — that is less than a tenth of the EPA’s level but is very close to the level that ATSDR is expected to recommend.
Campaigners for stronger regulation of PFCs welcomed New Jersey’s latest step but urged the DEP to speed up its adoption of the DWQI’s recommendations.
“Now the real test comes in how quickly DEP can move forward in getting this standard adopted,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The longer we wait to develop stricter standards, the more people’s health is at risk.”
Tracy Carluccio of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network said the new standard for PFOS would not protect young children from a decreased immune system response and therefore might make them more susceptible to illnesses later in life. To protect young children, the DRN wants to see an even stricter PFOS standard of 5 ppt, she said.
“These toxic compounds have taken years to go through the review process; the public has commented on the DWQI recommendations; and the science is fully vetted,” Carluccio said. “All the while, many people are drinking water contaminated with these toxic compounds. The adoption of the MCLs should now be done on an emergency footing by the state.”
At a national level, Carluccio said ATSDR should be allowed to publish its report even if it differs from the EPA’s evaluation.
“Pruitt should get out of the way and stop trying to prevent ATSDR from doing its job,” she said.