Taking the first steps toward firm PFAS limits for drinking water in Pennsylvania and Delaware

Federal law gives the states authority. New Jersey already has enforceable maximum contaminant levels for specific types of the toxic chemicals.

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A PFAS filtration system

A detailed view of a system to filter out PFAS at the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority facility in Horsham, Pa., on August 22, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Vikki Prettyman has stage 4 kidney failure. She wonders if it was caused by exposure to the toxic chemicals known collectively as PFAS.

Prettyman, who lives in Seaford, Delaware, used to be a town administrator in Blades, Delaware, which has a history of contamination with PFAS. Prettyman drank the town’s water for 10 years, before the wells there were tested for the compounds for the first time in 2018.

“I’m angry that this [PFAS and their impact on health] was discovered so long ago, and we’re still fighting and meeting over standards,” she said.

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 of 70 parts per trillion for two PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, but unlike MCLs, the advisory is non-enforceable.

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Some states have taken it upon themselves to set lower health advisory levels. Others, like New Jersey, have implemented enforceable MCLs for specific compounds. California has the most restrictive regulations on PFAS, at 5.1 parts per trillion for PFOA.

Prettyman and others say they have some hope as Delaware and Pennsylvania also inch closer to restricting PFAS compounds. Those states want to follow their neighbor, New Jersey, and establish MCLs for public drinking water. (Private wells are not regulated under the federal Clean Drinking Water Act, and states don’t have authority over them.)

Local environmental advocates say that the move toward MCLs is a significant win for public health, but that the states could do more.

“We see this action by the Pennsylvania DEP to be historic. The only way to really remove [PFAS] from our drinking water is to establish a maximum contaminant level that mandates their removal,” said Tracy Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “But we are asking for much stricter MCLs than those proposed in the draft regulations.”

For decades, PFAS 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. 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. Bucks County filed a similar lawsuit last week.

Towns, counties, and states have worked to eliminate PFAS in drinking water, and PFAS chemicals have been phased out of some products. The Environmental Protection Agency last year also announced a roadmap to address PFAS. However, the consequences of exposure are long-lasting — the compounds can stay in the human bloodstream for years.

Prospective limits in Pennsylvania and Delaware

Pennsylvania wants to limit the compound PFOA to 14 parts per trillion and the compound PFOS to 18 parts per trillion. That’s just slightly higher than New Jersey’s limits of 13 parts per trillion for PFOS and the compound PFNA, and 14 parts per trillion for PFOA.

The proposal comes after the state’s Department of Environmental Protection asked Drexel University to research PFAS in the state. Drexel’s study concluded that the EPA’s health advisory for PFAS was no longer protective of public health.

Drexel evaluated several PFAS, but the Pennsylvania MCL proposal focuses only on PFOA and PFOS. That’s  because there was either insufficient occurrence data, a lack of information about treatability, or of a lack of scientific studies on the other compounds, said Lisa Daniels, director of the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water within the Department of Environmental Protection.

“It’s the department’s opinion that this proposed rulemaking, and the numbers within this proposed rulemaking, is protective of public health, and it balances all of the regulatory drivers that we’re required to follow,” Daniels said.

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The Delaware Riverkeeper Network is asking Pennsylvania to consider MCLs that fall below 5 parts per trillion for PFOS, and between 1 and 6 parts per trillion for PFOA. The recommendation is based on independent toxicological risk assessments performed for the organization. The riverkeeper network also wants the state to include more PFAS compounds in its proposal and implement the regulations as quickly as possible.

“Every single day that goes by without an MCL in place mandated by the state is another day that people are drinking water that is dangerous to their health, [putting them at risk for] very serious diseases, including cancers, from exposure to PFAS compounds, particularly PFOA and PFOS,” Carluccio said.

Hope Grosse, co-founder of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, also believes that the MCLs should be lower, and that more compounds should be included. She, too, would like the process to be accelerated.

“I’m not happy about the fact that we are in the back of the train right now — we’re not the last to make an MCL, but a lot of other states have MCLs. And we know that these chemicals cause health effects,” Grosse said. “I do think it’s the first step. I feel like it’s taken forever, and it’s very frustrating as a community member to watch this process take so long.”

Similar to Pennsylvania’s proposal, Delaware has proposed a limit of 14 parts per trillion for PFOS and 21 parts per trillion for PFOA.

Setting MCLs will provide Delaware more information about water quality, because it will be the first time that some systems are sampled for these compounds, said Jamie Mack, environmental health director at the state Division of Public Health. That also means the state will be able to address contamination faster, he said.

PFOS and PFOA were chosen primarily because they are some of the most common compounds, and because there is readily available data on them. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested residents in New Castle, Delaware, for high levels of PFAS in their blood, scientists not only found elevated levels of PFOS and PFOA, but also PFHxS.  Mack said the state is planning, “at a minimum,” to review the new regulations annually and will make updates as necessary.

Delaware based its proposed MCLs on “minimum risk levels” established by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the CDC. The state partners with the agency for toxicological information. Minimum risk levels are an estimate of the amount of a chemical a person can eat, drink, or breathe each day without a detectable risk to health.

“Because it’s a science-based number, because Delaware understands how it was developed and is confident in these numbers, we decided to use those as the initial proposal,” Mack said.

“And then as we move through the stakeholder engagement, and conversations with water systems, and the general public, about their thoughts and feelings, we may adjust the numbers slightly up or down,” he said. “But I think we’re in a good range, and we’re certainly in the range that a lot of other states and jurisdictions have taken recently in implementing standards.”

Vikki Prettyman is now part of the organization Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, Inc., or SERCAP, which helps people get clean water. Like her Pennsylvania counterparts, she, too, wishes Delaware had proposed a lower MCL.

“We’re still finding out the health effects from PFAS. We know a little bit, but we don’t know the full long-term effect that PFAS has on our bodies … And so what level is deemed safe and acceptable? I feel the lower that we can go, the better,” Prettyman said.

However, she also hopes water providers and customers won’t be left with the financial burden of keeping PFAS levels low. Prettyman argued that the polluters should be the ones footing the bill for the necessary but expensive filtration systems, and the maintenance required.

“No child should have to go through a high PFAS in their system that could cause life-ending medical concerns. The Number One concern is the health and safety of our constituents,” Prettyman said. “But also, the municipalities, the utilities, should not be penalized for not having the money in order to put in such a very expensive piece of equipment and to take care of the water.”

Mack said Delaware wants to ensure that while it’s protecting human health, it’s not causing an undue burden on water systems and inadvertently raising fees for their customers.

There are two main treatment technologies available — carbon filtration and ion exchange. The technologies are not specific to PFAS, which means many companies may already have them in place to treat other types of contaminants, Mack said.

These treatment systems can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, though. The state is making sure water providers are aware of the state’s drinking water revolving fund, and opportunities to apply for loans or grants for treating water.

“We’re working to find the balance between what the laboratories can reasonably detect, what we can reasonably treat down to, and the human health effects,” Mack said.

Similarly, Pennsylvania will help water suppliers find financial assistance, Daniels said. In addition, federal funding could be coming down the pipeline. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill includes billions of dollars to help states clean up PFAS.

“I think with the infrastructure funding that states are still waiting for more information about, there’s the potential for much more funding to be available to address things like PFAS,” Daniels said.

Some suppliers have taken it upon themselves to set lower levels of PFAS for their drinking water. For example, Aqua set its own internal standard of 13 parts per trillion in 2020, said Dr. Chris Crockett, the company’s vice president/chief environmental, safety and sustainability officer.

“We are pleased that the PA DEP is proposing an MCL and look forward to this as an important first step in addressing PFAS in Pennsylvania.  Aqua … looks forward to its continued partnership with the PA DEP to manage this emerging issue,” Crockett said in an email statement.

Residents and stakeholders in Pennsylvania and Delaware will have the opportunity to provide input on the proposals starting later this month.

Pennsylvania could have a final ruling on MCLs early next year if all goes to plan. The MCLs would go into effect as soon as the final ruling is published, and official monitoring would be scheduled to begin in January 2024.

Delaware hopes to get its first required samples by water systems in spring 2023.

Prettyman encouraged people with private wells, who won’t be protected by the MCLs, to purchase filtration systems if they don’t already have one. Residents can contact SERCAP to get help to install a filtration system. NSF International and the CDC also can provide information.

Delaware State Rep. Bryan Shupe is working to pass legislation that would provide grants to low- to moderate-income households to install filtration systems in their homes if their water contains contaminants.

“Only municipal systems or community water systems are regulated by the Clean Drinking Water Act, so it’s important to educate our private well owners that you should be testing your wells every year,” Prettyman said. “And if you do have a contaminant, then there is a filtration system that you can get installed.”

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