New Jersey’s nation-leading efforts to protect the public from a class of toxic chemicals in drinking water are being threatened by the emergence of substitutes that may be just as hazardous to human health, experts argue.
At a public roundtable on PFAS chemicals, hosted by NJ Spotlight last Wednesday, scientists said chemical manufacturers have responded to increasing regulation of the chemicals by New Jersey and other states by introducing so-called short-chain alternatives, such as the chemical Gen-X, that serve the same purposes but have not been fully vetted by regulators.
Although the substitutes have not been subject to the same rigorous evaluation as the original chemicals, there are signs that they are equally toxic, according to the chairman of New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a scientific panel that advises the Department of Environmental Protection.
“Many times, these have not really been tested on rodents, they have not gone through a full toxicity screening,” said Dr. Keith Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist. “Some of the early studies that have been done on Gen-X, it seems to be extremely toxic as well,” Cooper told the meeting at Camden County Community College.
He said the short-chain compounds have similar mechanisms to long-chain PFAS chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS. “The toxicity may still be present even though they are only present for a shorter period of time,” Cooper said.
But because of a shortage of research on the new chemicals, scientists and regulators know “very little” about the shorter-chain PFASs, he said.
New Jersey regulators are in the process of placing some of the nation’s strictest limits on three of the longer-chain chemicals — PFNA, PFOA and PFOS — because of their links with illnesses including cancer, immune-system and thyroid problems, low infant birth weight, and elevated cholesterol.
As a class, PFAS chemicals have been used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics since about the 1940s. Even though PFOA and PFOS are no longer made in the United States because of an agreement between manufacturers, they are widespread in the environment because they are designed not to break down; they have been found more commonly in New Jersey water sources than in many other states.
A possible solution to the challenge of regulating the new short-chain chemicals could be to regulate the whole PFAS class, said Anthony Matarazzo, senior director of water quality and environmental management at New Jersey American Water, the state’s biggest water utility.
Regulating the entire class rather than just individual chemicals would mean that scientists could avoid playing “whack-a-mole” to respond to new chemicals as they emerged, he argued.
In response to the new concerns, New Jersey American Water is cooperating with state officials to look at the substitute compounds at a couple of its locations, Matarazzo said.
Meanwhile, DEP officials are evaluating the DWQI’s recommendations on PFOA and PFOS but at a pace that clean-water advocates say is much too slow.
It took the DEP four years to adopt the DWQI’s recommendation for PFNA, which has set a national benchmark for regulating the chemical, said panelist Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and a long-time advocate for tougher limits on the chemicals.
And she accused the DEP of “inexplicable” foot-dragging in its evaluation of PFOA and PFOS, which the DWQI says should also be subject to low limits. The DWQI recommended maximum contaminant limits (MCLs) for those chemicals in March of 2017 and May of 2018, respectively, and the DEP accepted the recommendations but has yet to implement those standards.
“It makes no sense,” Carluccio said. “New Jersey has done its homework. DWQI scientists completed their risk assessment to both [chemicals], developed health-based MCLs, evaluated and approved treatment methods, and handed the MCLs basically on a silver platter to DEP.”
Gary Buchanan, the DEP’s director of science and research, held out little prospect that the MCL process can move any faster.
“State government does not move quickly,” he said. “It takes time to get things right. We want to use the right science, the best available science. We want to consider all the options. We want to talk to all of our stakeholders. We also have to look at costs.”
But Buchanan said New Jersey will not wait for any PFAS regulation by the federal government, which issues only non-enforceable health advisories on some PFAS chemicals at levels that advocates say are much too high to protect public health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limits on PFOA and PFOS are much looser than those now under review by the New Jersey DEP, and a lot higher than standards advocated this year by another federal agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The EPA says it is looking at whether to regulate PFOA and PFOS, a decision that may be included in a national management plan which the agency has promised to publish by the end of 2018.
But the federal regulatory process takes years, and advocates say the problem of PFAS chemicals in drinking water can be tackled much more quickly by states, and by individual water systems, even if they are not legally required to do so.
Richard Calbi, director of operations at Ridgewood Water Municipal Utilities Authority, said his utility has been challenged by wide differences between state requirements and federal recommendations on PFAS, leaving customers confused and anxious.
In an effort to keep people informed, the utility held public forums in each of the four towns where it operates, serving about 61,000 people overall. The meetings were poorly attended, Calbi said, although customers call every day asking the utility what it is doing about PFAS chemicals in public water.
Ridgewood has spent about $3.5 million so far on installing granular activated carbon filtration to remove PFAS from its system, and those costs have been passed on to ratepayers, Calbi said.