A national mapping project detailing tap water contaminated with toxic chemicals used in fire fighting foams and nonstick frying pans shows a large number of those public water systems along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Researchers at Northeastern University and the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) based their map on federal drinking water data and documented cases of pollution by a group of chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds.
The chemicals, commonly referred to as PFC’s, (and include PFOA and PFOS), are used by manufacturers in making non-stick pans, waterproof clothing, take out food packaging, and fire-fighting foams.The compound is no longer manufactured in the U.S., but increasing numbers of drinking water sources have been found to contain levels that exceed EPA’s maximum contaminant levels.
The EPA says that long-term exposure to PFOA and PFOS at above its health-advisory limit may result in kidney and testicular cancer, damage to the liver and the immune system, developmental problems such as low birth-weight in infants, and thyroid problems.
The highly stable chemical compounds are what makes it useful to keep stains off carpets and food from sticking to frying pans, but that also makes it harmful to public health. The carbon bonds are strong, and don’t break down easily.
The report, entitled “Mapping a Contamination Crisis,” reveals 15 million people are exposed to PFC’s through their drinking water resulting from use of the chemical at manufacturing sites and military bases across the country. The map allows users to find contaminated sites, and the sources of the contamination.
The Delaware Valley includes a number of high profile sites like the Naval Air base facilities in Horsham, Warminster and Willow Grove, as well as the DuPont facilities in Deepwater, New Jersey and New Castle, Delaware.
Recently, high levels of the chemical were found in Burlington County, New Jersey, in a stream that runs from a wastewater plant at the Maguire-Fort Dix-Lakehurst military base to Rancocas Creek. PFC’s were detected at a combined level of 1,127 parts per trillion (ppt), the highest level detected so far, according to EWG. The EPA currently says long term exposure should be limited to 70 ppt.
David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, says the bulk of the data came from the EPA, which required drinking water facilities that served more than 10,000 people to test for PFC’s between 2013 and 2016 and report findings to the federal government of levels above 20 parts per trillion for PFOA and 40 ppt for PFOS. Andrews says they found 162 systems serving 15.1 million people had high PFC levels.
Seventeen of those tap water sources were located in Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware along the Delaware River. Harrisburg’s water system also showed detectable levels of PFC’s.
New Jersey had done its own testing in 2006, using a much more sensitive test, according to Andrews, which revealed 75 percent more contaminated water systems than the EPA test.
“What that means is the prevalence is likely much more common, especially in very industrialized areas,” Andrews said.
Andrews also said that although it’s no longer made in the U.S., manufacturers are now using alternatives, which he says could pose similar dangers.
“They haven’t been studied to the same extent,” he said. “So we’re really trying to raise concerns about this whole family of chemicals.”
The American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby, says the newer replacement chemicals are safe. The FluoroCouncil, which is associated with the ACC and represents companies that produce these chemicals said in a statement it has voluntarily stopped producing harmful PFOA’s.
“We have replaced them with newer, approved chemistries that are equally effective and also have improved health and environmental profiles. FluoroCouncil works with regulators in support of the global transition away from PFOA, and other long-chains, toward more sustainable short-chain chemistries. The FluoroCouncil also works with stakeholders to encourage best practices when using FluoroTechnology products to help minimize emissions to the environment.”
But questions remain about what to do regarding regulation of the chemical that has entered into groundwater and surface water. Environmentalists and public health advocates have raised concerns about the EPA’s standard for safe levels of PFC’s in drinking water. They say the agency’s advisory that concentrations of PFC’s should not be above 70 ppt is too high. New Jersey officials have recommended lowering the maximum levels from 70 ppt to 14 ppt. Some have suggested it should be as low as 1 ppt.
The Delaware Riverkeeper Network recently petitioned Pennsylvania officials to set a lower level than the federal standard based on new peer-reviewed research into the health impacts. The Riverkeeper’s Tracy Carluccio says she doesn’t expect the EPA under Trump to do anything about the problem, so their focus is on the state, which had heavy industry up and down the Delaware River.
“The number of contaminated sites just keeps growing,” she said. “Whether its manufacturing or fire fighting foams. It’s there because it doesn’t break down. We’re looking at a permanent contamination problem unless we do something about it.”
Correction: A previous version of this article included a headline referring to flame retardants. PFC’s are used in firefighting foams, not flame retardants.