Chemicals common in firefighting foam and used as coatings on everything from outerwear to frying pans have contaminated drinking water in parts of Pennsylvania, but they aren’t regulated by the state. PFAS is a class of chemicals known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment and they remain in the body. Exposure has been linked to a variety of health conditions, including testicular and kidney cancers and decreased birth weights.
The federal government has come up with a recommended, non-enforceable limit for PFAS in drinking water, but experts say that limit is not low enough. Pennsylvania has said it will regulate the chemicals, but hasn’t yet.
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Kara Holsopple: In June, the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board voted to move forward with setting a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFAS in drinking water. But that’s happened before. What’s the history there?
Kristina Marusic: The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been saying it plans to regulate these chemicals since 2017, when the nonprofit, environmental health organization Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed a petition with the Environmental Quality Board asking them to set an MCL for one of the most dangerous and common PFAS — PFOA, which is short for perfluorooctanoic acid.
The Environmental Quality Board accepted that petition. It said ‘we agree we should regulate this in the state of Pennsylvania,’ but then two years later in 2019, DEP still hadn’t taken any steps toward regulating the chemical or moved forward with the prescribed process it is supposed to follow after it accepts a petition like that. So the Delaware Riverkeeper Network sued them to try and force them to take action.
Holsopple: Where is that lawsuit now?
Marusic: That lawsuit has been making its way through the court system since then. Earlier this year, DEP asked a court to dismiss it, saying now they are working on the regulations and have taken additional steps, so it should be a moot point.
But the court ruled that doesn’t actually address the issue of how long it took in the first place, and that they still need to clarify what the petition process is meant to be like for future citizens who file similar petitions so that there is clarity around how long it should take to start enacting new regulations.
Holsopple: What are Pennsylvania officials saying about why establishing a state limit for PFAS in drinking water is taking so long?
Marusic: When I asked them about this in 2019, they said the process was going slowly because they needed to do more research on the health harms associated with these chemicals. They were having trouble hiring a qualified toxicologist and [they said] that Pennsylvania has some unique, pro-business laws that make it hard to quickly pass and implement new regulations, even if they are meant to protect people’s health. The pandemic then slowed everything down a little further.
The state had started doing a statewide testing program in 2019 to get a sense of how widespread contamination in the state is, and that process was pushed back significantly by the pandemic. They didn’t wrap that up until about June of this year, and in the meantime, about 10 other states have taken action to regulate these chemicals,
Holsopple: Where has PFAS contamination in drinking water been an issue in the state?
Marusic: The DEP tested around 400 sites throughout the state that they thought could have had contamination from PFAS chemicals based on where industries are that either manufacture or use PFAS. On the basis of that sampling, they concluded that there wasn’t widespread contamination in the state, but they only flagged locations with PFAS levels above that current EPA health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for combined levels of any of the 21 types of chemicals they looked for. Among the states that have set their own limits for PFAS, many of them keep the limits below 15 parts per trillion. Some are stricter than that and some are a little bit higher than that.
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If one of those more stringent standards were adopted in Pennsylvania, there would be dozens more sites from that statewide testing that were out of compliance. That testing also only tested public water, so they didn’t test any private wells. And again, it wasn’t comprehensive. They didn’t test every public water system in the state. They did find a couple of locations that were above that 70 parts per trillion level. Those were mostly in the eastern part of the state near Air Force and military bases where firefighting foam had been used for training and leached into the groundwater.
Holsopple: How about in western Pennsylvania?
Marusic: In western Pennsylvania, the DEP’s initial round of sampling found contamination in Coraopolis, which is near the airport. That contamination happened from that same firefighting foam, from firefighting drills that had to be performed at the airport. That allowed just huge volumes of firefighting foam made of PFAS to reach into the groundwater there. At that time, after that testing, the township’s water authority committed to using additional filtration to remove PFAS, but they actually never ended up doing that because of budgetary constraints and because, again, at this time, there are no federal or state regulations requiring them to.
The second round of testing that was done this last year showed half the amount of PFAS in Coraopolis’ water. But experts said that the test results can vary by up to 30 percent because there’s just not a lot of precision in the type of testing they do. So it’s unclear if their water actually got better, or if it was random based on the time when the test was taken or if it was a lack of precision in the testing.
Holsopple: There was also a big problem with PFAS contamination, and people couldn’t use their water, in McKeesport, which is just outside of Pittsburgh.
Marusic: Yes, that happened after firefighters were working to put out a fire at a local business and some of that PFAS-containing firefighting foam was inadvertently shot back into a fire hydrant and contaminated the drinking water. You can’t remove PFAs by boiling or freezing. Most people’s home filters don’t get it out, though there are home filters you can buy that will filter out up to 94 percent of PFAS, but most people don’t tend to have them lying around. So some residents in McKeesport didn’t have water in their home that was safe to drink or cook with or bathe in for about a month while they worked on fixing that issue.
Holsopple: What are the next steps for Pennsylvania and how long could the process take?
Marusic: You mentioned that in June the Environmental Quality Board voted again to move forward with setting an MCL PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS, but the DPI also at that time rejected the recommendations that the Delaware Riverkeeper Network had submitted. They took a bunch of research that other states have done, specifically, New Jersey, which spent years researching the health harms of this chemical and trying to figure out a reasonable limit for an MCL. They became the first state, I believe, to actually set an MCL for PFOA.
DEP rejected that research and their suggestion, saying that they want to do their own research. A DEP spokesperson also told me the agency intends to set an MCL for additional PFAS chemicals, but that they hadn’t yet determined which ones. A DEP spokesperson also told me that the process will take a minimum of two more years from today. So this is a process that started in 2017 and now we’re looking maybe it’ll be done by 2023.
Kristina Marusic is a reporter for Environmental Health News.