Pennsylvania moves to limit PFAS in drinking water

PFAS are toxic chemicals commonly found in clothing and non-stick cookware like teflon. (Wallace McKelvey/PennLive)

PFAS are toxic chemicals commonly found in clothing and non-stick cookware like teflon. (Wallace McKelvey/PennLive)

Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board on Thursday voted 15-3 in favor of a Department of Environmental Protection proposal to establish limits on two of the toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS.  Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” because they don’t naturally break down in the environment, PFAS compounds are linked to serious health issues including some cancers.

Currently, there are no federal maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for PFAS, shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in public drinking water.

The Environmental Protection Agency does set a federal health advisory level for PFAS, but unlike MCLs, the advisory is non-enforceable. In June, the agency reduced the advisory level from 70 parts per trillion to almost zero parts per trillion, after announcing the compounds are more dangerous than previously thought.

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

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

“It was critically needed by people who are currently drinking water contaminated with these highly toxic compounds,” said the Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Tracy Carluccio. “Every day that people are drinking water that contains PFAS, it increases the levels of these toxins in their blood, and that increases their risk of developing a disease linked to PFOA and PFOS.”

For decades, PFAS chemicals have tainted the water, air, and soil in this region and across the country. These so-called “forever” chemicals are widely used in consumer products such as nonstick cookware, flame-retardant fabrics, and some food packaging, as well as in firefighting foam used at current and decommissioned military bases.

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

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

Carluccio and other environmental advocates have argued that while Pennsylvania’s proposal is a step in the right direction, it isn’t restrictive enough. They had called for lower MCLs, for more PFAS compounds to be regulated and for private wells to be protected. (Private wells are not regulated under the federal Clean Drinking Water Act, and states don’t have authority over them.)

Those who voted against the measure on 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. EPA last year also announced a roadmap to address PFAS.

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

“I’m grateful that Pennsylvania finally moved ahead with theirs, because we could be ahead of the game,” Gross said. We’ll be at least working on getting these levels lower now versus waiting maybe another year, maybe two years, for the federal government to set their MCLs.”

The measure now needs to be approved by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, and the Attorney General’s office.

Delaware has proposed implementing its own MCLs, while New Jersey already restricts PFAS at 13 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFNA, and 14 parts per trillion for PFOA.

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