The number of New Jersey water systems where toxic PFAS chemicals were found surged by more than 11 times over the past year, largely because of a new requirement that utilities report one of the chemicals that is now regulated by the state, according to data released by an environmental nonprofit on Tuesday.
The Environmental Working Group said there were 517 water systems, most of them small, where some of the chemicals were found in tap water or untreated ground water. Of the total, 470 were not reported the last time EWG gathered the data in February and March of this year.
At that point, only 47 systems reported having found PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals. Since then, more systems have been reporting the presence of PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), the first of the chemicals to be subject to an enforceable state limit.
Finding reliable data sources
The EWG report is based in part on data reported by utilities to the Department of Environmental Protection, which makes the data available on its website but has not analyzed or interpreted it for the public. Other data sources include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Defense Department.
The new data shows how widespread the chemicals are in water systems, even if they are treated and removed after the contamination is discovered, said Dr. David Andrews, senior scientist at the EWG.
“The more we test, the more we are finding that these contaminants are pervasive, especially across New Jersey,” he said. “It may be that the contamination is more likely around industrial facilities, but the testing indicates that it is really widespread.”
Greater awareness of problem
He stressed that the new data doesn’t indicate an increase in contamination, but an increase in awareness of it. “Our knowledge gap has shrunk, and in testing more of the water systems, we are finding that it’s much more frequent,” Andrews said.
Still, the latest reported levels show the results of testing at the time rather than what’s coming out of the tap now, and may no longer apply if a utility treated the water or shut down the source after discovering the chemicals, EWG said.
Water systems may have taken a contaminated source offline, blended the tainted water with a clean source, or installed treatment systems, the report said.
About 65 of the systems exceeded health limits that have been proposed or adopted for three PFAS chemicals — PFNA, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) — by New Jersey officials. In seven community water systems, the levels of PFOA and PFOS were above a much looser health limit recommended, but not required, by the EPA, the report said.
One of the larger systems covered by the report was New Jersey American Water’s Raritan system, serving some 615,000 people. According to the EWG, the system reported the presence of four PFAS chemicals this year at a total level of 138 parts per trillion (ppt).
‘At forefront’ of creating treatment processes
Company spokeswoman Denise Venuti Free acknowledged the presence of PFOA and PFOS in some source water in its service areas, and said the company is “at the forefront” of developing treatment processes for the chemicals.
“When sources that are impacted can be taken offline they are, and new treatment technologies are put into place for impacted sources, both ensuring that the water delivered to our customers meets or surpasses EPA and NJDEP requirements,” she said.
One of the smaller water systems covered by the report is operated by NJ Aqua in Vernon, serving just 515 people. The data indicate that it had a total PFAS concentration of 19.6 ppt of PFOA and PFOS when tested this year.
Dan Lockwood, a spokesman for the company, acknowledged the total but said both the chemicals fell within the health limits that are expected to be officially adopted by the DEP in 2020. He said the company does not currently plan to treat for PFAS in the Vernon system but will “continually monitor” for the contaminants.
The chemicals were found in other small systems including schools, mobile home parks and churches.
Linked to some cancers
PFAS chemicals have been linked with some cancers, immune system disorders, low birth weights, high cholesterol and other health problems, and have been found in more than 1,300 locations around the United States. They were used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-resistant fabrics, starting in the 1940s, and have been widely used by the military in firefighting foam.
Known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, PFAS have been found more often in New Jersey than in most other places because of the state’s long industrial history, and, until recently, lack of regulation.
In the absence of federal regulation, New Jersey has become a national leader in setting strict limits on the presence of PFAS in drinking water to safeguard public health. In 2018, the state adopted a “maximum contaminant limit” for PFNA, and is in the process of regulating two others, PFOA and PFOS, two of the chemicals that occur most often in public water systems.
Despite the state’s activist stance on PFAS, the EWG accused the DEP of not doing enough to alert the public to the widespread presence of the chemicals, as shown by the latest report.
“While New Jersey has taken important steps in terms of setting the legal limits and doing the testing, they could do more to publicize what they have found, and what actions the state has taken to address this drinking-water contamination,” Andrews said.
The DEP did not respond to a request for comment.