Federal and state authorities have decided to look into whether chemical contamination of water supplies at Paulsboro is a threat to public health.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, working with the New Jersey Department of Health, said it will investigate whether perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in the South Jersey town’s water are exposing residents to an increased risk of some cancers and reproductive problems that are associated with the chemicals.
“ATSDR has concluded that there is sufficient sampling data to evaluate whether exposures to PFCs in the Paulsboro municipal wells were at levels of possible health concern,” the agency said in a letter to the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that has called the issue a “public health emergency” and has been pressing for a federal investigation.
In a letter released by the DRN on April 1, the federal agency said its investigation would not be able to determine the cause of any medical condition experienced by local residents, and will not evaluate environmental work or cleanup activities by other agencies.
The ATSDR said the chemicals “may” have been released by Solvay Solexis, a chemical manufacturer in nearby Thorofare, which stopped using PFCs in 2009.
The DRN said the federal agency’s involvement is a sign of the possible dangers involved.
“Their acceptance of our petition for a public health assessment shows how serious this pollution problem is and the need for the expertise and experience this federal agency will bring,” said Tracy Carluccio, the DRN’s deputy director.
“We hope this will lead to providing safe drinking water and to the cleanup of PFCs that pollute this region, including the Delaware River -- a cleanup done at the expense of the responsible party or parties,” Carluccio said.
Concern over PFCs in local water supplies has also led the neighboring communities of West Deptford, East Greenwich, and Woodbury to shut down wells that were found to contain PFNA, one of the PFC family of chemicals, the DRN said.
Two other PFCs -- PFOA and PFOS -- have been subject to a provisional health advisory for short-term drinking water exposure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is conducting its own investigation.
The chemicals, which are used in household products such as nonstick cookware and stain-proof fabric, have been found in many locations throughout the state but are at their highest in Paulsboro, about two miles from the Solvay plant, and at a location in Salem County about six miles from a factory operated by DuPont Chambers Works, the DRN said.
An investigation by the Borough of Paulsboro last September found water from one of Paulsboro’s three public wells contained PFNA at 150 parts per trillion, or more than three times the 40 parts per trillion “guidance” level issued by New Jersey’s Department of Health as the upper limit for safe consumption.
The state does not regulate PFCs but has issued guidance levels in response to increased public concern. People are mostly exposed to the chemicals via drinking water; contamination by showering or dishwashing is unlikely, the department said in an advisory.
Some types of PFCs can cause testicular and kidney cancer, and increased cholesterol in humans. They are also linked to reproductive and developmental problems in animals, the health department said.
“Studies of the general population, communities with drinking water exposure, and exposed workers suggest that PFCs increase the risk of a number of health effects,” the advisory said.
Solvay has been conducting its own sampling, in cooperation with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. The company denied in January that the chemicals represent a public-health concern. It did not respond to requests for comment on the ATSDR investigation.
In December of last year, the DRN released results of an independent contractor’s assessment of Solvay’s investigation, concluding that the plan was “too limited” to determine the distribution of PFCs from the Solvay factory.
Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, said Solvay was always within the law in its use of the chemicals. He said the well that contained an elevated level of PFCs will be shut off shortly, and that an elevated level of radium found in another well has been resolved.
Any future high levels of PFNA can be resolved by the installation of carbon filters in the municipal water system, he said. “It isn’t something we can’t deal with,” he said.
Ragonese said Solvay was the “likely” source of some of the PFC contamination but that the chemicals may also have come from other sources. “There is no definitive understanding that we know where these came from,” he said.
He also dismissed an accusation by DRN’s Carluccio that the state has decided to reconvene the previously dormant Drinking Water Quality Institute because of what she called a “furor” over the Paulsboro water issue.
The DWQI, an advisory body that includes representatives from government, industry, and academia, is due to meet on April 29 for the first time since 2010. The four-year break in its operations reflects a delay in appointing new members caused by a press of other issues, especially Sandy recovery, and has nothing to do with Carluccio’s campaign over Paulsboro, Ragonese said.
“For her to suggest that she caused this is ridiculous,” he said.
Paulsboro Mayor W. Jeffery Hamilton, whose administration has threatened to sue Solvay unless the water issue is resolved, welcomed the federal probe.
“I think it’s a good thing that they are coming in to lend a hand and move the project forward,” Hamilton said. “Right now, it seems like it’s at a standstill, and I just want it to keep right on moving. The people need not keep drinking this water if it’s a hazard.
“This is more serious than they really think it is because with no regulations on this PFC how much can you keep consuming before something really happens?” he said.
Hamilton, who in January publicly accused Solvay of being the source of PFC contamination, declined to say whether any Paulsboro residents have shown symptoms of being exposed to PFCs.
Donna Leusner, a spokeswoman for the state health department, said it will work with the ATSDR, as it often does, but that she didn’t know how long the investigation would take.
“The department has begun to look at all of the available information and data,” Leusner said. “Based on a review of that information and input from the community and advocates, the Department and ATSDR will come up with a set of recommendations and findings.”