Rutgers launches Paulsboro PFAS study with public information session

Scientists want to learn more about links between ‘forever chemicals’ and ill-health
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Rutgers University’s School of Public Health is inviting residents of Paulsboro in Gloucester County to participate in a national study of how their health is affected if so-called forever chemicals in the PFAS family get into their drinking water.

The school is holding a virtual information session on Thursday evening to discuss the study, which is due to begin early next year in the South Jersey town that has seen some of the country’s highest levels of the chemicals in drinking water over the last decade.

Scientists hope to take blood from up to 1,000 adults and 300 children to gather more information about the chemicals’ effects on a range of health conditions including the development of children, immune system functioning, cholesterol levels, and the increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women.

The chemicals have also been linked with some cancers, but the study won’t examine that relationship because the sample won’t be large enough to do so.

The upcoming tests are part of a federal investigation at eight locations around the country where people have been exposed to the chemicals. While there is some evidence of a link between the chemicals and ill-health, scientists say they need more data on the effects.

Paulsboro was chosen because PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), a type of PFAS chemical, was found at a high level in one of the town’s drinking water wells in 2009 and 2013. The well was shut down in 2014; its closure led state officials to advise Paulsboro parents to use bottled water for infants and young children. It was reopened in 2016 after being fitted with filtration to remove the chemical.

Last year, a Rutgers study found a link between PFNA and self-reported high cholesterol levels in some Paulsboro residents.

No national regulations

Since 2018, New Jersey has had strict health limits on the presence of PFNA and two other PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The chemicals are not nationally regulated although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to set so-called maximum contaminant limits for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), two of the most commonly found PFAS chemicals.

New Jersey officials have blamed the Paulsboro contamination on Solvay Specialty Polymers, a chemical company in nearby West Deptford, that used PFNA at the site until 2010, and has spent millions of dollars on testing and cleanup since then.

But in a lawsuit filed in early October, the company accused Paulsboro Refining Company, operator of a nearby oil refinery, of being the source of the chemical. Separately, Solvay said it had been using unnamed “process aids” as replacements for the PFNA, but did not specify whether the substitute material is also toxic or whether it has been found in water wells. Environmentalists say PFAS replacements may be just as dangerous to human health as so-called legacy chemicals, and that more research is needed on the new materials.

PFAS chemicals, once used in a range of heat- and stain-resistant consumer products including nonstick cookware, are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, and can persist in water and soil for years after their use or manufacture has ended.

Residents are being asked to participate in the upcoming tests to help advance knowledge about the chemicals’ health effects and to inform discussions with their doctors on any necessary treatment. Participants will be given gift certificates worth up to $75.

“The goal of the multi-site health study is to learn more about the relationship between PFAS exposure and health outcomes among differing populations,” according to a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal partners in the study.

Rutgers said it will set up a Citizen Advisory Panel to support the study, inform researchers about community health concerns, and help communicate the results to the community.

The virtual information session is taking place from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday. Details to participate can be found here: https://rutgers-hipaa.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJwuc-2tqT0vGNGhuUWUIiFGtgILCTjsaAQ9