New tests on drinking water have found toxic PFAS chemicals present in 43 public water systems around the country, including in Bergenfield, Bergen County, where 12 types of the chemicals were found last year, according to data released by an advocacy group on Wednesday.
Environmental Working Group (EWG), a leading national campaigner for stricter health limits on the chemicals, said the Bergen County sampling site had the fourth-highest total PFAS level in the U.S. when it took samples in August 2019.
The chemicals found in Bergen County included PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) at 14 parts per trillion (ppt), equal to the limit that the state Department of Environmental Protection is expected to adopt in coming months. Two other PFAS chemicals, PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), were below the proposed or adopted DEP limits. Nine other chemicals from the PFAS family were also found there.
EWG said the samples were taken in the “likely” service area of United Water, a unit of Suez North America.
Suez attacked EWG’s “total PFAS” levels as scientifically dubious. “We are not aware of any regulation, existing or proposed, that adds the concentrations of 12 PFAS compounds together,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon. “There is no guideline to compare that total to, and many scientists oppose using this approach because there are so many variables.”
It said its water meets all state and federal requirements, and that the company is currently evaluating new treatment methods for the chemicals, the results of which are expected soon. “We are taking this action not because the regulations require it, but because it is the right thing to do for our customers,” it said.
Spokeswoman Debra Vial said the company’s water meets federal health requirements for PFNA, PFOA and PFOS, as well as a new state regulation on PFNA and its proposed levels for the other two chemicals.
In October last year, tests on five wells in Suez’s Hackensack system — of which Bergenfield is a part — showed PFOA levels of between 11 and 16 ppt, according to New Jersey Drinking Water Watch, a DEP website. The company results were similar to the PFOA level reported by EWG for one part of the Suez service area.
The new data follows state and federal authorities’ earlier detection of PFAS in Bergen County, and adds to growing evidence that New Jersey has more contamination with the chemicals than many other states.
Although the data confirms earlier findings, it will help water suppliers by showing them specific sampling results where per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances are present in tap water, said Tracy Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that campaigns for strict regulation of the chemicals. PFAS chemicals were once used in consumer products such as Teflon.
“The fact that Bergen County residents have been exposed to PFAS is not new, and it continues to be of grave concern,” she said.
The additional data will help homeowners decide whether they want to keep drinking water straight from the tap, whether to install a home filtration system, or even whether to avoid moving to a neighborhood, Carluccio said.
The data comes from single samples taken from each water system, and may not represent what’s coming out of the tap today, although the results are likely to be representative of the water in the area of the sample, EWG said.
The group said the data shows PFAS contamination across the country is worse than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency previously indicated. In 34 places where EWG found the chemicals, EPA or state agencies had not publicly reported contamination, EWG said.
EWG said it tested for more kinds of PFAS chemicals than EPA did, and so has shown the pervasive nature of the chemicals throughout the United States.
“What we see is that it’s nearly impossible to escape PFAS contamination of drinking water,” said Dr. David Andrews, a senior scientist with EWG. “This is really a wakeup call that we need to do much more sampling, and for a broader array of these compounds.”
State PFAS health limits
Some states including New Jersey are setting their own PFAS health limits in the absence of federal regulation. The U.S. House of Representatives this month passed legislation that would set a time limit for EPA to regulate some of the chemicals, but President Trump has said he will veto it if it reaches his desk.
The EPA declined to say when it will decide whether to begin regulating PFOA and PFOS or whether its work on PFAS has underestimated the chemicals’ prevalence, as claimed by EWG, but said it is addressing the issue “aggressively.”
The agency said it has made “significant progress” toward helping states and communities protect public health from the chemicals, and that in December it announced a new method for detecting 11 additional PFAS chemicals in drinking water, for a total of 29.
“Aggressively addressing PFAS will continue to be an EPA priority in 2020 and we will provide additional information on our upcoming actions as it becomes available,” it said in a statement.
The new tests are in line with those conducted in the service area of nearby Ridgewood Water, a publicly owned system that has found PFOA in most of its 52 wells at levels that would exceed the proposed state standard. The utility has installed treatment technologies in five wells, allowing it to curb PFOA levels by combining treated and untreated water, said Rich Calbi, director of operations for the utility that serves some 62,000 customers.
“The numbers are consistent with what we’ve been seeing,” Calbi said.
The Ridgewood utility has so far spent $3.5 million on PFAS treatment, and faces a much bigger bill for doing so on all its remaining wells, Calbi said. In an attempt to defray those costs, the utility last year sued DuPont and seven other PFAS manufacturers, accusing them of contaminating the water supply.
The chemicals have been linked to illnesses including cancer, immune system problems and elevated cholesterol. Although major U.S. manufacturers have phased them out, they persist in groundwater and soil because they don’t biodegrade.
Given the health concerns, and the absence of federal regulation, the data shows that the state should take a “precautionary” approach to protecting public health from the chemicals, said Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey state director for the nonprofit Clean Water Action.
“The dangers from these ‘forever chemicals’ are too great, as their ability to harm never goes away,” Goldsmith said.
This story has been updated to include a Suez statement issued after the EWG report was published.