NJ Adopts Strict Standards on Two Toxic Chemicals in Drinking Water

Advocates say new rule is an important step forward in protecting public health
Credit: Henryk Niestroj from Pixabay
The new standards are meant to ensure safer drinking water.

New Jersey is finally adopting tough new health standards for two toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water a year after proposing them and up to three years after state scientists recommended them.

The state Department of Environmental Protection confirmed Monday that a proposed rule setting maximum contaminant limits on PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), two of the most prevalent and widely studied of the PFAS family of chemicals, had been sent to the Office of Administrative Law, as required, on March 31, the day before it would have expired.

After the rule is finalized by publication in the New Jersey Register, it will require public utilities and owners of private water wells to ensure that drinking water contains no more than 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS. They will be two of the strictest standards among states that have regulated the chemicals, and far stronger than the 70 ppt advisory guideline set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a level that advocates say is much too lax to protect public health.

The rule will also require cleanup of the two chemicals from groundwater to remove the source of drinking water contamination.

A link to health conditions

The chemicals, once used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, are linked to an array of health conditions including some cancers, immune system problems, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol.

They have been found more widely, and at greater concentrations, in New Jersey than in many other states because of the state’s long industrial history. High concentrations have also been found at military stations such as New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, where the chemicals have long been used in firefighting foam.

The chemicals, formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are known by environmental activists as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, and can contaminate water systems long after their industrial use has ended.

Concern about the impact on public health of PFAS chemicals in general, and PFOA in particular, arose last year with the release of “Dark Waters,” a movie about a campaign by Ohio lawyer Robert Bilott to win legal damages for residents near Parkersburg, W. Va., who had been sickened by the discharge of PFOA into public water supplies from a nearby DuPont plant.

Federal regulation could take years

In February, the EPA said it would begin a process that could lead to the national regulation of PFOA and PFOS. Advocates, who have long criticized the agency for failing to protect public health from the chemicals, said it could still be years before federal health standards are in place.

The two chemicals are the second and third in the PFAS family to be regulated by New Jersey since the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of government scientists and water company executives, resumed its work in 2014. The panel recommended the new limits on PFOA in 2017 and PFOS in 2018. In 2018, New Jersey became the first state to regulate a related chemical, PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid).

Advocates for tough limits on the chemicals in New Jersey hailed the adoption as an important step forward for public health, albeit one that was long overdue.

“The adoption of these standards last week was not only historic, it was the fruitful result of a tortuous path towards providing long-awaited and overdue but essential protection of public health,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and a longtime campaigner for strict PFAS standards.

Protecting infants, children

The standards should have been even stronger, Carluccio said, citing research by a Riverkeeper consultant who urged lower limits to protect infants and children. But she said New Jersey has now set some of the strongest limits in the country, and she urged other states to follow its lead.

When the rule is finalized, it will require public water systems to start sampling for the three chemicals in the first quarter of 2021. Some are already doing so, and the compliance of all utilities will be eased by the fact that they have been required to test for PFNA since January 2019, making them familiar with PFAS-testing protocols, Carluccio said.

“We encourage all water systems to go ahead and proactively sample for PFOA/PFOS so that they can install treatment systems if needed sooner rather than later,” she said.

Environmental Working Group, a leading national advocate for PFAS regulation, also welcomed New Jersey’s move.

‘No state has done more’

“I never thought I’d say that you have to go to New Jersey if you want clean water, but no state has done more to address PFAS pollution,” said Scott Faber, the nonprofit’s senior vice president for government affairs.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, commended DEP for taking an important step in protecting public health.

“This is one of the strongest rules in the nation, and it’s going to go a long way to protecting public health,” he said.