Testing for ‘forever chemicals’ in water supplies, industrial discharges to increase
By Zachary Matson
Expect to hear a lot more about PFAS as state and federal regulators look to crack down on the dangerous and pervasive compounds.
Known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the synthetic chemicals have been used on nonstick pans, rain jackets, stain-resistant carpets, firefighting foam and other consumer goods..
The very thing that made PFAS valuable to manufacturers also makes them a long-term risk: they are highly persistent and slow to dissipate in the environment and human body. Even as their use in production has declined, the so-called “forever chemicals” have garnered growing attention in recent years as scientific evidence links them to illness.
Researchers have discovered the man-made chemicals in water sources, soils and the blood of people around the world.
Regulators are starting to clamp down, increasing requirements to monitor and limit the presence of the contaminants in water supplies. Here is an overview of recent developments at the federal, state and local levels.
At the molecular level, they are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, forming a very strong bond that does not degrade easily.
The two most common and studied PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). Other types of PFAS exist and are often found in combination.
While their use has been discontinued in many forms of manufacturing, they are suspected to be present at some level in the blood of nearly every American.
Acute and chronic exposure is linked to cancer, liver damage, weakened immunity, risks to pregnant women and babies and other health problems. PFAS can also accumulate over time in the environment and human body, compounding risks.
“The science is clear…long term exposure from PFAS is linked to significant health impacts,” Jennifer McLain of the Environmental Protection Agency said during a recent webinar explaining a proposal to regulate PFAS in drinking water.
The EPA last week proposed a new drinking water standard that would effectively outlaw any detectable amount of PFOA and PFOS in public water supplies, as well as regulate the combined totals of a mix of other PFAS.
Release of the proposal triggered a 60-day public comment period and could result in a final rule later this year.
The rule would mandate a maximum contaminant level of 4 parts per trillion for both PFOA and PFOS in public drinking supplies, the lowest level that reliably can be detected. The EPA said there is no safe level in drinking water.
“PFOA and PFOS are likely human carcinogens,” said Alex Lan, a technical lead on the EPA proposal.
The rule would require public water systems across the country to test for the contaminants, remove them if found and report results to users. The rule would apply to 66,000 water systems around the country, and federal researchers estimate about 3,500 of those systems would exceed one of the new limits, EPA staff said during the online webinar.
Another part of the proposed rule would establish a hazard index for a combination of different types of PFAS. If the combined amount of those PFAS exceeds a certain threshold, a water supplier must remove them.
“The new rule will significantly result in less PFAS in drinking water around the United States,” McLain said.
Some groups representing water utilities have argued the EPA in its cost-benefit analysis of the proposal underestimated the costs for updating treatment capabilities.
The state Department of Health in 2020 set maximum contaminant levels for both PFOS and PFOA at 10 parts per trillion. With that threshold, water providers started to search for the contaminants.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation last week adopted new ambient water quality standards with limits for state-permitted industrial pollution discharges.
The new standards aim to complement DOH drinking water contaminant levels, and ensure industrial “facilities do not contribute to harmful levels of emerging contaminants in the environment and these contaminants are appropriately controlled at industrial sources rather than downstream treatment systems,” according to DEC.
Newburgh and Hoosick Falls have both been the site of PFAS-contaminated drinking water, and University at Albany health researchers and residents of those two communities are participating in a national study on the health effects of exposure.
After decades of using PFAS-laden firefighting foam, the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear measured extremely high level of PFAS in water sources at the 1,100-acre site.
DEC in 2020 declared the airport a state superfund cleanup site, instigating a process to study the extent of the contamination and remediate it.
Like many airports across the country, Adirondack Regional used firefighting foams for training and in emergencies, including responding to plane crashes in areas near the runway. PFAS leached into groundwater and soils at the site. The town of Harrietstown, which owns the airport near Saranac Lake, signed a consent order in 2021 to study and clean the site.The town contracted with engineering firm C.T. Male Associates to outline plans. The town intends to shift the costs to the manufacturers of the firefighting foam. DEC has already billed the town close to $100,000 for reimbursement.
In 2021, Harrietstown sued 3M and other manufacturers, and has since joined in litigation with thousands of plaintiffs against scores of companies and the United States government.
Filed in a federal court in South Carolina, the case is known as “In re: Aqueous Film-Forming Foams Products Liability Litigation” and is a key bellwether in PFAS litigation. A judge in the fall rejected the manufacturers’ attempt to get the suits thrown out.
The town is seeking the manufacturing companies to pay for the contamination investigation and remediation costs and loss of property value, as well as other damages. The town also seeks an order that puts the remediation responsibility on the companies.
“It is expected that NYSDEC will require significant and active remediation at the airport and contamination emanating therefrom, including impacted surface water bodies,” the town asserted in its complaint.
Outside of regulatory testing at water plants and suspected contamination sites, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of testing of PFAS in Adirondack waterways, though researchers at the Whiteface Mountain science station are exploring measuring PFAS in cloud water.
The first round of PFAS testing at public water utilities in the park offers some positive signs.
On the web site of the state DOH, the presence in 2021 of PFOA and PFOS in water was listed for Corinth, Warrensburg, Ticonderoga, Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.
The correctional facility reported a sample that exceeded the state’s PFOA threshold, but noted that it may have been the result of “contamination in the sampling process” after subsequent testing did not detect PFOA. Ticonderoga reported it had measured a “very low level” of PFOA at one well site but that later tests were below detection levels.
Most Adirondack residents, though, get their water from a smaller supplier or a private well.
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