This story has been updated.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is moving forward with a new rule to limit chemicals known as PFAS in drinking water. Virtual public hearings were held this week.
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The Many Uses of PFAS
The class of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, were created in the 1930s. Today, PFAS chemicals are used today in everything from food packaging, to outdoor clothing and dental floss. They make pans non-stick, and carpeting stain-resistant. The aerospace, construction, and automotive industries use them in things like fuel and brake lines, sealants for valves, and to prevent leaks.
PFAS winds up in the environment in manufacturing emissions, or in municipal sewage sludge that can be spread on farm fields as fertilizer.
But PFAS is probably best known for being in the foam used for firefighting.
“When you think about firefighting foam, it’s released at gallons per second, and so you have a lot that’s being discharged at once,” said Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group, which has looked extensively at PFAS.
“If that’s allowed to just run off into the environment, then it can quite easily seep into the soil, into the groundwater,” she said. ” Because these are forever chemicals, they stay there forever.”
Problems with PFAS
They’re called “forever” chemicals because they accumulate in the environment, and don’t easily break down. And they can harm human health. According to EPA, exposure to certain levels of these chemicals can increase the risk of some cancers, lead to developmental delays in children, and reduce the body’s ability to fight infection, among other health effects.
But EPA only has an unenforceable health advisory on PFAS. It doesn’t regulate these chemicals in drinking water.
- Environmental advocates applaud EPA plan to address PFAS, but say more is needed
- Report details PFAS contamination near Pittsburgh airport that ‘likely’ extends beyond military base boundaries
- Environmental Working Group interactive map of PFAS contamination in the U.S. (October 4, 2021)
Pennsylvania DEP steps in
In 2019 and 2020, DEP tested around 400 public water systems, most of them within a half-mile of potential sources of PFAS contamination, like military bases, landfills, and manufacturing facilities.
Two PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, were found in about a quarter of them. A couple of sites were so contaminated, the state took immediate action, but the results did not indicate widespread PFAS contamination, according to DEP.
Now DEP is proposing limits in drinking water of those two chemicals.
In November, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection proposed a new rule to set Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) in drinking water for the two PFAS chemicals it found in its survey. The Environmental Quality Board (EQB) held a series of virtual public hearings this week on the proposed rule.
Joanne Stanton of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water spoke at the Wednesday afternoon hearing.
“Seven years ago my hometown was devastated to discover that our drinking water had been highly contaminated by PFAS for close to fifty years, with some of the highest levels of PFAS pollution ever detected in public water drinking wells,” she told the EQB.
Stanton grew up near the Warminster Naval Air Base and Willow Grove Naval Air Station, north of Philadelphia, which contaminated water supplies with PFAS chemicals.
She told the EQB that she and her childhood friends remember watching naval drills, where firefighters would shoot dense white foam from hoses. She believes that exposure led to her son developing a brain tumor.
“There’s three of us who grew up in the town of Warminster on the same street within a few houses of each other, and all three of us had children with brain tumors. All the children’s tumors were cancerous and they all had embryonic tissue at the core,” Stanton testified. “Our doctors immediately questioned our environmental exposures to chemicals. And we all learned that we all drank PFAS contaminated water throughout our childhoods and during our pregnancies. As a mother, it was gut-wrenching to learn that my PFAS exposure might have caused my child’s cancer.”
DEP’s PFAS Limits
Stanton supports DEP regulation, saying it can save lives, but doesn’t think the state is going far enough with its proposed rule. She supports the recommendations by Drexel University for a Maximum Contaminant Level(MCL) for one of the chemicals, PFOS, of 14 parts per trillion, and the other, PFOA, of 8 parts per trillion.
To come up with its rule, DEP compared Drexel’s recommendations with the federal government’s advisory of 70 parts per trillion, according to Lisa Daniels, director of DEP’s Bureau of Safe Drinking Water.
“We analyzed a series of numbers in between and then each of those numbers, we were able to produce what the cost would be versus what the benefit would be,” she said.
Pennsylvania then proposed MCLs of 18 parts per trillion for PFOS, and 14 parts per trillion for PFOA.
“And in both of those cases, the public health protection is in the range of 90 percent and 93 percent protection,” Daniels said.
Joanne Stanton disagrees with the state’s methodology. “These MCLs should be based on a toxicology analysis, not a cost-benefit analysis, and MCLs must ensure safe drinking water for vulnerable populations like children,” she testified at the hearing.
Twenty-nine people testified at the public hearings, and 650 have so far submitted written comments on the proposed PFAS rule, according to DEP. It will continue to accept public comment until April 27.
Some public water utilities will be required to start monitoring for these chemicals starting in January 2024. Money from the federal infrastructure bill is expected to help communities pay for the additional water treatment and filtration systems, Daniels said.