Pennsylvania sets drinking water standards on two ‘forever chemical’ PFAS compounds

A person fills up a jug of water from a faucet.

File photo: A number of projects are underway to remove PFAS, or 'forever chemicals', from the water in Montgomery County. (marina-tr/BigStock)

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection adopted new 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.

The move means that all public and private drinking water treatment facilities in the state, along with commercial bottled water plants, and school and healthcare facilities, will have to test for the toxic substance, report the findings, and treat for the chemicals present above the new maximum contaminant levels (MCLs).

Although the chemicals have been used in consumer products since the 1940s, scientists refer to them as “emerging contaminants” because so much is unknown about their impact on human health.

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

As a result states have taken action and a patchwork of regulations now exists across the country.

“Since Governor Tom Wolf signed an executive order in 2018, DEP has been committed to protecting Pennsylvanians from the adverse impacts of PFAS,” said DEP Acting Secretary Ramez Ziadeh. “We are still learning more about these chemicals, and these new MCLs are a step in the right direction.”

The Environmental Protection Agency does set a federal health advisory level for PFAS, but unlike MCLs, the advisory is non-enforceable. In June 2022, 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.

Pennsylvania’s new regulations would restrict the PFAS compounds PFOS — perfluorooctane sulfonic acid — at 14 parts per trillion, and PFOA — perfluorooctanoic acid — at 18 parts per trillion.

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The rulemaking 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. In October, the state’s Environmental Quality Board voted 15-3 in favor of the limits.

“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 at the time of the vote. “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 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.

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 rulemaking 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.)

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.

The EPA is expected to propose federal restrictions for PFAS in drinking water in March. The EPA last year also announced a roadmap to address PFAS.

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