EPA urged to set national standards to protect public health from PFAS chemicals

State officials, community leaders say federal action needed to fix contamination

  • Jon Hurdle

Pennsylvania community leaders and elected officials are urging the federal government to set strict new health standards for toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

At a day-long “community engagement” event called by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Horsham Township, Montgomery County on Wednesday, advocates said the EPA hasn’t done enough to protect the public from the chemicals that were once used in non-stick cookware and firefighting foam, and are now linked to cancer and other illnesses.

Communities such as Horsham – where PFAS contamination from two military bases is among the highest in the country — have taken their own measures to protect the public from the chemicals after discovering the elevated levels in 2014.

But advocates say the federal government should set legally required maximum contaminant limits for the chemicals in drinking water, rather than just issuing health advisories that are not enforceable.

“The issue remains one of establishing standards, not only for drinking water but for soils and everything else,” said William Walker, manager of Horsham Township, which has used carbon filters and other technologies to virtually eliminate PFAS chemicals from its public water system. “Until they establish standards, it’s very hard to permanently address the contamination.”

Although the community has cleaned up its water supply, removing the chemicals from the soil is a much bigger job that will take “decades and decades” to accomplish, and could only be done with the resources of the federal government, Walker said in an interview.

The Horsham cleanup, which has resulted in PFAS chemicals being brought down to “non-detect” levels in public water, cost about $1.2 million, and has been funded in part by a surcharge on residents’ water bills, Walker said.

While the Department of Defense has met part of the cleanup cost, it should take full responsibility for decades of PFAS contamination caused by the military’s use of firefighting foam containing the chemicals, Walker said.

“Impacts of past exposure cannot be ignored. Citizens of Horsham should not bear any cost for removing PFAS from their drinking water,” he said.

The Horsham session was part of a national tour of affected sites by EPA officials, who say they are considering whether to regulate the chemicals, and are seeking local input into how to manage the contamination. The agency also says it is beginning a process to designate two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances, and is developing groundwater cleanup standards for those chemicals at contaminated sites.

EPA officials told the roughly 300 people at the event that they are working on a national PFAS management plan which will be ready by the end of 2018.

But even if EPA decides to set maximum contaminant limits for the chemicals, it will likely be years before they are implemented, due to the slow pace of adopting new federal regulations, critics say.

Earlier this year, campaigners accused the EPA and the Trump Administration of trying to block publication of a PFAS report from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. When it was released in June, the report recommended standards for PFOA and PFOS that were seven to 10 times stricter than the health advisories issued by the EPA.

EPA ‘must take a leadership role’

Officials from six states including Pennsylvania that were represented at Wednesday’s conference echoed local calls for stronger federal action.

“EPA must take a leadership role and address PFAS in a holistic fashion,” said Lisa Daniels, acting deputy secretary for water programs at Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. “States cannot do this on their own. Failure to address PFAS will put public health at risk.”

Pennsylvania doesn’t have its own PFAS regulations but follows the EPA’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, which critics say is too lax to protect public health.

Daniels said the DEP is working to clean up PFAS contamination at 11 Pennsylvania sites, two of which are led by the state and nine led by the federal government.

Pennsylvania does not have the authority to order across-the-board monitoring of the chemicals in the state’s 8,500 public water systems, and can only require monitoring on a case-by-case basis for contaminants for which EPA issues a health advisory, Daniels said.

In private water wells, which serve about 1 million households, the state is hindered from monitoring for the chemicals because it is one of only two states in the country that does not regulate private wells, she said.

In the absence of federal regulation, some states such as New Jersey and Vermont are setting their own PFAS standards that are much tighter than the EPA levels. But a state-by-state approach will just lead to a “patchwork” of rules that are “not helpful,” Daniels said.

The chemicals have been found around the country on military bases and industrial sites at levels that exceed the EPA’s guidelines. Last week, New Jersey issued its first consumption advisories for a dozen species of fish that have been found to contain PFAS chemicals.

Health department assesses exposure in Horsham

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Department of Health is working with residents of the Horsham area to assess their exposure to the chemicals. Dr. Sharon Watkins, the state epidemiologist, said about 600 households have been contacted and blood tests for 11 PFAS chemicals have so far been conducted on about 140 people.

Watkins said she hopes the study, which is funded in part by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will be completed in about six months’ time.

She called for more study of the PFAS problem and said there needs to be more coordination between federal agencies and states. “More research is needed which means more funding is needed,” she said.

Joanne Stanton, a former resident of Warrington, a nearby town that has also been affected by PFAS contamination from the military bases, said her son and two other children on the street where she lived had brain tumors, and even though no link has been established to PFAS, she wonders whether the chemicals in the environment have caused the illnesses.

At the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station nearby, contamination with PFOA and PFOS was found at 300,000 parts per trillion during testing by the Defense Department during the last year, or some 4,200 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory, Stanton said.

“We have a big problem that needs a unified approach from our government agencies,” Stanton told the meeting. “The time is now to set an enforceable standard under the Safe Drinking Water Act that is at least as protective as the ATSDR level.”

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