Pa. Health Department hiring scientists to study PFAS chemicals in drinking water

Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania Department of Health secretary, speaks with reporters. (Brett Sholtis/WITF)

Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania Department of Health secretary, speaks with reporters. (Brett Sholtis/WITF)

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health wants to hire 10 scientists to learn more about the health risks of the PFAS group of chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other illnesses.

Health department Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine spoke about the effort at budget hearings this week, just as a growing number of states are calling to regulate the chemicals. PFAS were once used in industrial and consumer products ranging from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam. They now are found in drinking water around military bases and airports.

The department is seeking $1.4 million, included in Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal, to hire toxicologists, epidemiologists and chemists to study PFAS. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has pinpointed 20 locations around the state with high PFAS levels in water sources. They include the Horsham/Warrington/Warminster area of Bucks and Montgomery counties near two former military installations that used the chemicals in firefighting foam for decades. Eleven of the sites in the Southeast part of the state.

Speaking to the bipartisan committee of lawmakers, Levine said the community needs to learn the risks of exposure to the chemicals — and how long they stay in water.

“They are long-lived. In fact, it’s not really clear if they ever go away. We’re still studying what the medical effects will be,” Levine said.

One toxicologist job is already posted, she said, though the department is struggling to find someone to fill the position. That comes five months after Wolf signed an executive order to manage contamination, identify sources, and supply information to the public.

The effort is part of a collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DEP, which is looking to set the “maximum contaminant level,” the legal limit on what is allowed in public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Although the effects of PFAS aren’t well known, they are believed to affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and children and can lower a woman’s change of getting pregnant, according to the CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. They can also interfere with hormones, increase cholesterol levels, affect the immune system and increase cancer risk.

“The potential for health effects from PFAS in humans is not well understood,” the agency states, because some chemicals have been studied more than others. “In general, animal studies have found that animals exposed to PFAS at high levels resulted in changes in the function of the liver, thyroid, pancreas and hormone levels.”

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