Renewed concern about a chemical found in some of New Jersey’s drinking water is prompting state officials to work with utilities to seek treatment solutions and a state scientific panel’s research is expected to lead to stricter regulation of what the federal Environmental Protection Agency says is a likely carcinogen.
But environmentalists are urging swifter action and more stringent regulation of PFOA, or perfluorooctanic acid, which has been found in 12 New Jersey water systems at or above a “guidance” level set by the state as the upper limit for safe consumption, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
A recent New York Times Magazine cover story on the effects of the chemical near a Dupont plant in West Virginia said PFOA has also been found in 26 other states — including New Jersey, where the article said 1.3 million people live in affected areas.
High levels found in 12 New Jersey water systems
DEP data show PFOA was detected in the 12 New Jersey water systems at levels that equaled or exceeded the DEP’s 40 parts per trillion (ppt) guidance level at various times over the past nine years. (Notes attached to testing data indicate in each case that the chemical’s level dropped below the DEP limit after treatment, or that treatment systems were installed.)
The 12 water systems tested by state or federal officials at different times since 2007 are:
Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority
Brick Township MUA
Garfield Water Department
Greenwich Township Water Department
Montclair Water Bureau
New Jersey American’s Raritan system
New Jersey American’s Logan system
New Jersey American’s Pennsgrove system
Orange Water Department
Paulsboro Water Department
Rahway Water Department
South Orange Water Department.
In Brick Township, for example, tests found PFOA at above the DEP limit in 2010 and 2011. Later tests found the chemical still in the system but at levels below the limit.
New Jersey American said it treated the water in the three systems where PFOA was found at above the DEP limit, and that the chemical is now below that level in each of them.
In the Pennsgrove and Logan systems in South Jersey, PFOA was found above the state limit in 2011 but has since been treated with granular activated carbon, and since 2014 has been at a “non-detect” level, said Anthony Matarazzo, the company’s Senior Director for Water Quality and Environmental Management.
In the company’s Raritan system, officials found PFOA at above 40 ppt in the Netherwood well in Plainfield in 2011 and in the Hummocks Station well in Union Township in 2015. In Plainfield, the chemical is now below the limit after treatment, while treatment continues pat the Hummocks well, Matarazzo said.
Although the recent reading on the Hummocks well was above the DEP limit, water from that location is blended with surface water before it reaches customers, so that no one is exposed to water that contains PFOA above the limit, Matarazzo said.
“The percentage that the (well) water represents is fractional,” he said. “No customer sees water at above 40 parts per trillion.”
In Greenwich Township, Gloucester County, officials shut down one of its three wells after tests found PFOA, said Mayor George Shivery. The township has now spent about $1.4 million on an activated carbon filtration system that will be fitted on all three municipal wells in late February or early March, he said.
Representatives of the other eight water systems identified by the DEP could not be reached for comment or did not return phone calls.
Nonstick cookware, clothing, carpets
PFOA, found in nonstick Teflon cookware as well as carpets and clothing, has been phased out in the United States but traces persist in some water systems. It is part of a family of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) that have been linked to some cancers in humans and reproductive and developmental problems in animals.
New Jersey officials say the state’s PFOA limit may be the toughest in the country, and it is much lower than the limit set by the EPA.
But some environmentalists are calling for even tighter limits in light of recent research indicating the highly toxic nature of the chemical. Critics also note that the state’s guidance level does not allow enforcement, and they are urging officials to set a Maximum Contaminant Limit (MCL) that would allow PFOA and other PFCs to be regulated.
The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, is urging officials to cut the limit to just 1 ppt following work by Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health and Richard Clapp of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, who concluded in 2014 that the EPA’s guidance level was “at least two orders of magnitude higher” than a level that would protect public health.
Dr. David Andrews, senior scientist at EWG, said there is increasing evidence of the hazardous nature of PFOA.
“The more we learn about these chemicals, the more concern there is,” he said, in an interview. “I do think the federal government and New Jersey should consider these health effects that are shown to occur in testing at 1 part per trillion or lower. Including this more recent science would drastically lower these advisory levels.”
EWG said it used data from EPA’s testing in 2014 and 2015 to calculate that some 1.3 million people in New Jersey live in areas where PFOA was detected at or above the EPA’s monitoring level of 20ppt.
Found in other NJ systems at lower levels
The EPA’s tests identified nine water systems that contained the chemical at concentrations above the state limit, and 59 others where it was found at lower levels. Overall, PFOA was found at 9.3 percent of the sites tested, a far higher rate than the 1.4 percent nationally. The nine systems are among the 12 identified by the DEP.
John Martin, an EPA spokesman, said tests in Ohio and West Virginia in 2012 found “probable links” between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and medically diagnosed high cholesterol.
Martin said the EPA is developing a long-term advisory for PFOA that will supersede a temporary one issued in 2009. The EPA has set its own guidance level of 400 parts per trillion (ppt) for what it calls short-term exposure. That contrasts with a much stricter state DEP limit which assumes lifetime exposure.
Meanwhile, PFOA is being studied by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of academic scientists, state officials, and water-company executives that advises the DEP. After conducting research into the treatment, detection and health effects of the chemical, the institute will recommend a Maximum Contaminant Limit (MCL) to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.
In 2007, the DWQI posted a guidance value of 40ppt for PFOA, and by September 2010 was close to recommending a MCL to the DEP, a source told NJ Spotlight. But the institute then stopped meeting until April 2014, a hiatus that some environmental groups have said was a “shutdown” prompted by a Christie administration that wanted to avoid new regulations on industry.
The DWQI’s restart was welcomed by clean-water campaigners but some are now asking whether it is meeting as regularly as it should and why its last MCL recommendation – on the related chemical PFNA – has not been accepted by the DEP seven months after it was submitted.
Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which has been outspoken in its calls for tighter limits on PFOA and related chemicals, wrote to Martin on Jan. 20 asking why the DEP has yet to take regulatory action to remove the chemicals from drinking water.
“It has been seven months since the institute issued its recommendations to the state,” DRN said in its letter. “What is DEP’s holdup? When will DEP propose the adoption of a safe drinking water standard for PFNA?”
DRN also called on the DEP to lower its limit for PFOA.
“DRN does not consider the 40 ppt guidance level that DEP issued based on studies in 2007 to be protective of public health,” said the group’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio. “There has been a huge body of data and many scientific studies since then that indicate a much, much lower Maximum Contaminant Limit is required.”
Dr. Keith Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist who chairs the DWQI, did not respond to a request for comment.
Is problem more widespread?
David Pringle, New Jersey campaign coordinator for the nonprofit Clean Water Action, said the 12 affected water utilities on the DEP’s list are probably not the only ones where PFOA exceeds the state level. He said officials need to work more diligently to find other contaminated locations.
“It would be wrong to suggest that only these 12 systems have this problem,” Pringle said. “The concentration isn’t what determines the level of public risk but also how toxic something is.”
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said officials are continuing to work with the affected utilities with the aim of keeping PFOA concentrations below the official limit.
“We don’t consider these emergency situations but what we are doing currently is to reach out to the system operators to work with them and explain the guidance level, and recommend that they take steps to protect the public,” Hajna said. “We don’t want people to be alarmed by this but at the same time we want people to be aware.”
A long-delayed DEP report issued in 2014 said it found PFOA and other PFCs in two-thirds of New Jersey water systems sampled in 2009 and 2010. PFOA was the most common type of PFC, found in 55 percent of water systems, ranging from Atlantic City to New Brunswick to Paulsboro.
The chemicals do not biodegrade, and so are likely to persist in the environment. Even if detected, they may not be removed because utility operators are not required to do so even though there are recognized techniques such as activated carbon for removal.
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.