The federal government said Monday it is awarding $1 million each to Rutgers University and six other institutions to study the health effects of PFAS chemicals at seven U.S. sites including Paulsboro and West Deptford in Gloucester County, where high levels of the chemicals have been found.
The study is the second phase of a project led by the Centers for Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to look at how public health has been affected by the PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that were once used in consumer products like Teflon, and are linked to a range of illnesses including immune system problems, high cholesterol, and some cancers.
The first phase collected data on the prevalence of the chemicals in light of increasing detections in public and private water supplies at locations including industrial sites and military bases — where the chemicals were used for decades in firefighting foam.
“There is much that is unknown about the health effects of exposures to these chemicals,” said Patrick Breysse, director of the ATSDR and CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, in a statement. “The multi-site study will advance the scientific evidence on the human health effects of PFAS and provide some answers to communities exposed to the contaminated drinking water.”
EPA declined to set timetable for regulation
The information gathered will allow communities and governmental agencies to know more about how to respond to PFAS pollution, the CDC said. It said nothing about whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would participate or use the information to regulate the chemicals. The EPA said earlier this year it would look at whether to set enforceable standards on two of the chemicals, but declined to set a timetable for regulating them.
Earlier this year also, the ATSDR proposed curbs on the chemicals that were far stricter than the advisory standards advocated, but not required, by the EPA.
In New Jersey, PFAS chemicals including PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) were found in Paulsboro in 2009, and studied in 2016-2017 by Rutgers scientists who looked at a small sample of 192 people who had been involved in a class-action lawsuit over the chemicals. The participants’ blood was found to contain PFNA at about four times the national rate, and there was some evidence of a link between the chemical and elevated cholesterol.
In 2014, a long-awaited study from the Department of Environmental Protection reported that two-thirds of New Jersey public water systems in 20 counties tested positive for the chemicals, which persist in the environment long after their use or manufacture has ceased.
In January this year, a South Jersey landfill cancelled a contract to take thousands of tons of PFAS-contaminated soil from a former military base in eastern Pennsylvania — where ground water contains the chemicals — amid rising public concern about risks that the chemicals would leak into ground water in New Jersey.
Study set to start next month
The new study, due to start on Oct. 1, aims to cover 1,000 adults and 300 children, in an area where Solvay Solexis, a chemical company, used PFAS before voluntarily halting its use in 2010. The study’s subjects will be recruited beginning six to 12 months after the start date, said Dr. Robert Laumbach, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, which will investigate PFAS exposures in Gloucester County under the new federal grant.
Water in a Paulsboro public well where PFAS chemicals were found has been treated and tested since 2016, Laumbach said. The study will reconstruct past exposures, and measure PFNA and other PFAS chemicals in blood, which persist for years, and have been dubbed “forever chemicals.” In nearby West Deptford, affected private wells have been offered treatment, he said.
“We will work closely with the Paulsboro and West Deptford communities to maximize the benefits of the study for community members,” he said. “There will be a community advisory board and community participation in how we design and implement the study.”
The research adds to tough new standards that New Jersey has set for three of the chemicals over the last five years, establishing itself as a national leader on regulating PFAS.
Nationally, the study aims to recruit at least 2,000 children aged 4–17 years and 6,000 adults aged 18 years and older who were exposed to PFAS-contaminated drinking water in states including California, Colorado, Michigan and Pennsylvania.