Pennsylvania decides to limit PFAS in drinking water

Bastiaan Slabbers / For WHY

Detail view of the newly installed system to filter PFAS Forever chemicals at Well No. 2 at the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority facility in Horsham, Pennsylvania on August 22, 2019.

Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board on Thursday voted 15 to 3 in favor of a Department of Environmental Protection proposal to establish limits two of the toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS.

Often referred to as “eternal chemicals” because they do not break down naturally in the environment, PFAS compounds are linked to serious health issues, including certain cancers.

Currently, there are no Federal Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for PFAS, short for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, in public drinking water.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets a federal health advisory level for PFAS, but unlike MCLs, the advisory is not enforceable. In June, the agency reduced the advisory level from 70 parts per trillion to almost zero parts per trillion, after announcing that the compounds were more dangerous than previously thought.

Pennsylvania’s proposal would limit the PFAS compounds PFOA and PFOS to 14 parts per trillion and 18 parts per trillion respectively. This would require water companies and municipalities to regularly monitor water for PFAS and treat water if it exceeds MCLs.

The proposal came after the DEP asked Drexel University to assess PFAS contamination in the state. The study concluded the EPA health advisory for PFAS no longer protected public health.

“It was essential for people who currently drink water contaminated with these highly toxic compounds,” said Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “Every day that people drink water containing PFAS, it increases the levels of these toxins in their blood, which increases their risk of developing PFOA- and PFOS-related disease.”

For decades, PFAS chemicals have contaminated water, air and soil in this region and across the country. These so-called “everlasting” chemicals are widely used in consumer products such as non-stick cookware, fire-retardant fabrics and some food packaging, as well as in fire-fighting foam used in current and decommissioned military bases.

The contamination has had a significant impact on residents in areas such as Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania, Monmouth County in New Jerseyand Dover and Blades in Delaware.

The many health problems, including some cancers, linked to PFAS have led to lawsuits against the companies that make the products, such as DuPont and its successor companiesand 3M. The consequences of exposure are long lasting – the compounds can remain in human blood for years.

Carluccio and other conservationists have argued that while Pennsylvania’s proposal is a step in the right direction, it is not restrictive enough. They had called for lower MCLs, regulation of more PFAS compounds, and protection of private wells. (Private wells are not regulated by federal drinking water quality law, and states have no authority over them.)

Those who voted against the measure Thursday argued that the state should wait for the EPA to implement federal MCLs. The agency is expected to propose federal restrictions for PFAS in drinking water in December. The EPA also announced last year a roadmap to combat PFAS.

Environmental advocates like Hope Gross of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water say states should act quickly because it could take the EPA several years to implement federal MCLs.

“I’m grateful that Pennsylvania finally moved on with theirs because we could be ahead of the game,” Gross said. We will at least work to lower those levels now rather than wait maybe another year, maybe two years, for the feds to set their MCLs.

The measure must now be approved by the Independent Regulatory Scrutiny Commissionand the Attorney General’s Office.

Delaware has proposed to implement its own MCLswhile New Jersey already limits PFAS to 13 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFNA, and 14 parts per trillion for PFOA.

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