A long-delayed study on links between PFAS “forever chemicals” in drinking water and public health in the Gloucester County town of Paulsboro is due to start in July, its leading official said Tuesday.
Dr. Robert Laumbach, an associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Public Health, said the study will seek residents willing to share their medical history and undergo a blood test as part of a federal project to gather more information on the chemicals’ links to illnesses. Researchers are looking to see if the chemicals play a role in illnesses including decreased vaccine response in children, high cholesterol, high blood pressure in pregnant women, and changes in liver enzymes.
In 2013, a public water well was temporarily shut down in Paulsboro after a high level of one PFAS chemical was found there. Now the town is one of eight sites around the country that have been chosen for the study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry because they have experienced PFAS contamination in drinking water.
Officials want to test 1,000 adults who have lived in Paulsboro at any time from January 2005 to April 2014, and 300 children ages 6 to 17, who have their parents’ permission to participate, and lived in the town at any time until April 2014. Among adults, firefighters and industrial workers may not be eligible.
“It’s going to take a lot of outreach to get folks to come out but we’re confident we can do that,” Laumbach said during a Rutgers webinar that was designed to build public support for the study. The project has been delayed mostly by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
Laumbach said that 1,300 Paulsboro residents previously came forward for blood tests related to a legal settlement and “we’re hoping a lot of those people will come out again.”
Since 2016, Paulsboro’s public water system has been using specialized filters to remove PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — from drinking water. Mike Reed, the town’s water/sewer superintendent, said the filters have cut the presence of PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), a type of PFAS chemical, from 32 parts per trillion (ppt) when water enters Paulsboro’s water treatment plant to a “non-detect” level before it is pumped out to be consumed by the public.
Reed said they also test for three kinds of PFAS chemicals during the filtration process to ensure that public water does not exceed levels set by the Department of Environmental Protection as the upper limits for safe human consumption in drinking water.
The latest input readings at the town’s main treatment plant for those three chemicals before any treatment exceed New Jersey regulations. The town obtains its supplies from groundwater, and it’s unclear where the contamination is coming from, Reed said.
PFAS chemicals now removed from water
Even though Paulsboro’s public water does not now contain PFAS at harmful levels after filtering, its residents are likely to have the chemicals in their blood from drinking water before it was filtered, or from a range of consumer products including carpets, flame-resistant fabrics, or food packaging that may still use the substances.
“These compounds are so ubiquitous that if you sample in anyone’s blood, you will have these compounds,” said Dr. Keith Cooper, a Rutgers toxicologist who chairs New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists and water-company executives that advises the DEP. Its recommendations on tough health standards for PFAS in drinking water have been adopted by the DEP over the last seven years, and have made New Jersey a national leader in regulating the chemicals.
The federal government does not set enforceable standards for PFAS in drinking water but has recently announced a new round of testing and restarted a regulatory process that may eventually lead to national standards being set.
In Paulsboro, residents may also have been exposed through groundwater or soil because the chemicals don’t break down in the environment, and so may persist for years after their use or manufacture has ended — helping to explain why they are known as “forever chemicals.” Paulsboro’s PFAS problem has been blamed on Solvay, a chemical company that previously used PFNA at its plant in nearby West Deptford and voluntarily stopped its use in 2010.
The Paulsboro study also aims to include participants in West Deptford where about 50 private water wells contained high PFAS levels, Laumbach said.
West Deptford also of concern
“West Deptford is an area where there’s concern,” he said. “It’s a community that surrounds the Solvay plant which is thought to be the source of the PFNA in Paulsboro’s drinking water, and there are some private wells there which have had some very high levels of PFNA and other PFAS — higher than the public water in Paulsboro.”
Solvay is “thought to be” the source of Paulsboro’s PFAS contamination, Laumbach said. The company has been sued by the DEP, which has accused it of emitting the chemicals into the environment. It is also named as a defendant in a recent series of lawsuits by dozens of South Jersey residents who say they suffer from cancer, birth defects and many other serious health problems because they were exposed to the chemicals for years.
In response to the DEP suit last November, Solvay said it had “rigorously” investigated and remediated PFNA near its plant, with the full knowledge of the DEP and in compliance with all relevant laws and regulations.
Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and a longtime advocate for strict health limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water, welcomed the start of the study, which she said will be of the “utmost importance” for people who have been living with contaminated water for years.
‘People want to know’
“People want to know how PFAS exposure has affected them and their families, how much has concentrated in their blood, and how this may have impacted their health,” she said. “The only way to know for certain if your blood has high levels of PFAS is to have it tested and this health study is finally going to answer that question for people. This is a huge benefit for the community.”
After testing, PFAS results will be reported to participants although there are no health guidelines for PFAS in blood, and there is no treatment for it, Laumbach said.
The study, which is expected to take five years from preparation to the dissemination of results, will compare blood tests with those previously taken in the community. That will help determine the half-life of PFNA in blood which currently appears to be two to three years, he said.
Nationwide, the tests are designed to improve scientific knowledge about links between PFAS and human illness, Laumbach said.
“Most authoritative sources would agree that there is suggestive evidence, but substantial uncertainty, about a wide range of health effects of PFAS,” he said. “That was the main motivation.”