New Jersey’s new plan to impose tough limits on two carcinogenic chemicals in drinking water puts it in the forefront of national efforts to control the substances, and is the state’s first such effort for seven years, analysts said.
The Department of Environmental Protection on Monday proposed maximum contaminant limits (MCLs) for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) and 1,2,3 trichloropropane (TCP), which are both classified by the federal government as likely carcinogens.
The plan, which would allow the state to regulate the chemicals for the first time, includes a requirement for monitoring and treatment, if necessary, for water systems of all sizes.
The proposal conforms with a recommendation by the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientific advisors to the DEP, that has advocated MCLs for lifetime exposure of 0.013 parts per billion (ppb) and 0.030 ppb for PFNA and TCP, respectively.
The DEP’s plan comes more than two years after the DWQI recommended the limit for PFNA, and seven months after the DEP made its first public statement, in comments to NJ Spotlight, that it had accepted the panel’s proposal.
The lengthy process of accepting and adopting the measure has prompted accusations from environmental groups that the DEP was dragging its feet on a recommendation that could add to costs for water system operators.
But the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a leading advocate for stricter limits on PFNA and related chemicals, welcomed the DEP’s latest move, saying it would help to reduce a threat to public health.
“New Jersey is finally proposing a maximum contaminant level to remove it,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the DRN, referring to PFNA. “NJDEP is the first government agency in the nation to take this action and they are doing so based on scientific evidence of PFNA's dangerous health impacts, even at tiny levels, and the fact that some NJ communities have extremely high concentrations.”
PFNA, which was used in textile coatings, stain repellants, and food packaging, has been linked to some cancers in humans and to reproductive and developmental problems in animals. It has been phased out by U.S. manufacturers but is still made in China and other countries, and can still legally be in products imported to the United States, Carluccio said.
New Jersey American Water, which supplies water to about 2.7 million people, welcomed the DEP’s proposal, and said it is already monitoring for unregulated contaminants, as required by an EPA program.
Denise Venuti Free, a spokeswoman, said any new requirement for monitoring and treatment will increase costs. For example, she said the company spent $13 million on carbon filters to remove “trace amounts” of PFCs from water at treatment plants in Gloucester and Salem Counties in 2012 and 2014.
“Water quality is important to us and we remain committed to making needed investments into our systems to ensure high quality and reliability for our customers,” she said in a statement.
A report by the DWQI in 2015 found the chemical in 2.5 percent of the New Jersey public water systems tested was at levels that exceeded the guidance standard. That compared with just 0.2 percent nationwide.
An earlier study by the DEP found PFNA and related chemicals in 67 percent of 31 municipal systems tested in 20 counties during 2009 and 2010. The highest level — about seven times the new standard — was found near the South Jersey town of Paulsboro, where Solvay Specialty Polymers used the chemical as a production aid before phasing it out voluntarily in 2010.
The proposed limit for PFNA is stricter than the 0.02 ppb currently set by the DEP as a “guidance level” but which does not require water system operators to comply with the level. The chemical is not regulated by the federal government.
No other state has imposed an MCL for PFNA, said Bill Walker, vice president of Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C. nonprofit that does research and advocacy on toxic chemicals and other environmental issues.
Walker praised New Jersey for the proposed new limit but warned that MCLs don’t necessarily match the levels that protect human health.
“MCLs are too often the result of political and economic compromise, not based on what the best science says will fully protect public health for everyone, with special attention to fetuses, infants, children, and women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant,” Walker wrote in an email.
The EWG hasn’t analyzed the DWQI’s work on PFNA, so it doesn’t know how the new MCL compares with the best science on that chemical and the related PFOA and PFOS, Walker said. But he warned that those PFCs can be harmful at levels as low as 0.001 ppb, or less than a tenth of the new recommended limit.
Since making its recommendation on PFNA in April 2015, the DWQI has also a recommended a limit on PFOA, a related chemical, and is now working on PFOS, another member of the family of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
“This is protection needed across the nation for all perfluorinated chemicals, but the federal government isn’t adopting new MCLs, leaving the states to pick up the pieces,” said the DRN’s Carluccio.
For TCP, New Jersey joins California and Hawaii as the only other states with regulated limits on the chemical. The New Jersey limit is stricter than Hawaii’s but not as tough as that in California, Walker said.
TCP, used in pesticides, degreasers, and varnish removers, is an exceptionally potent carcinogen, prompting California to adopt the strictest limit of any regulated chemical except dioxin, which is widely regarded as the most toxic substance known, Walker said.
In 2015, TCP was found in two water wells in Moorestown, Burlington County. The wells have since been closed.
The DWQI first recommended a limit for TCP in 2009, but the measure was not adopted by the DEP. In 2010, the panel stopped meeting for almost four years, prompting accusations by environmental groups like the DRN that it had been shut down by the Christie administration. It resumed work in 2014.
The Chemistry Council of New Jersey, which represents the chemical and related industries, is reviewing the DEP’s proposal and will respond as part of the public process, said Elvin Montero, a spokesman. The DEP is holding a public hearing on its proposal on August 29, and is accepting written comments until October 6.