NY Drinking Water Quality Council Recommends Regulating PFOA

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With 2018 coming to a close, Governor Cuomo finally made good on one of his resolutions—Today, the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council helped make drinking water safer for all New Yorkers.  They did so by recommending the regulation of PFOA and PFOS, two man-made chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health issues, at a level that, if adopted, would be the toughest in the nation. 

At a public meeting this evening, the Council recommended that the state set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs)—the highest concentration of a chemical that is permitted in drinking water—for PFOA and PFOS at 10 parts per trillion (ppt) per contaminant.  Under these standards, over 20 percent of all public water systems may contain unsafe levels of PFOA and PFOS, according to the New York State Department of Health.

While the Council made real progress today, the work is not over.  It is now up to the Department of Health to take up the mantle and draft regulations for these contaminants based on the most up to date science.  Related to this, we have two recommendations: 

First, PFOA and PFOS are just two chemicals in a larger group, known as PFAS.  As PFOA and PFOS have become synonymous with various types of cancer and developmental effects, manufacturers have replaced them with other PFASs that have different names (like GenX and PFNS), but that pose similar and synergistic health effects. 

If we just regulate PFOA and PFOS without regulating the entire group of chemicals, we are simply allowing this dangerous cycle of contamination and regulation to repeat over and over.  The only way to break this cycle is to regulate the entire group.

At the very least, we implore the Department of Health to treat PFOA and PFOS together, and set one combined maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS concentrations.  Under the Council’s recommendations, PFOA and PFOS have separate MCLs of 10 ppt—but this ignores the reality that it is the combined level of PFOA, PFOS, and other PFASs in the human body that leads to adverse health effects, not just the concentration of each chemical on its own.  To accurately respond to the latest science, we must look at these two contaminants together.

Second, as information about these contaminants comes to light, we are discovering that PFOA and PFOS are harmful at levels lower than we’ve ever previously believed.  In fact, there may be no safe level of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.  Just today, the European Food Safety Authority released a new study evaluating the risks of PFOA and PFOS in food.  Drinking water limits based on their findings would translate to approximately 1 ppt for PFOA and 2 ppt for PFOS.  As the Department drafts their regulations, they should consider a combined standard in line with these findings.

PFOA and PFOS have been used in a wide range of products, like Teflon, water-resistant clothing, fast food packaging, and firefighting foam.  For decades, PFOA and PFOS were used in manufacturing processes and firefighting activities across the state.  This has led to decades of unregulated contaminants seeping into underground water supplies—from Hoosick Falls upstate, which first brought this public health concern to light in New York, to Long Island, which depends on wells for drinking water.

And since there is no requirement for regular testing for these chemicals, it’s possible they are also lurking, undetected, in drinking water wells elsewhere.   The Department of Health estimates that around 40 percent of public water systems in New York State contain concentrations of PFOA and PFOS of 4 ppt or higher, but there is no way of knowing without required testing.  Around the country, PFOA and PFOS are known to persist in more than 6 million Americans’ tap water at unsafe levels. 

NRDC has been urging regulation of PFOA and PFOS since the first meeting of the Drinking Water Quality Council.  In February, we submitted a 45-page report explaining the rationale behind our recommendation.  

As we have already seen in towns like Petersburgh, existing technology can effectively filter PFOA and PFOS to levels below 2 ppt.  And Governor Cuomo has already made $185 million available for water treatment system upgrades to combat PFOA and PFOS, so municipalities do not have to foot the bill on their own.

With our leaders in Washington falling down on the job, it’s up to state leaders to act.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to set tough standards for these chemicals in drinking water, despite the recent public uproar over its attempt to block the release of a critical report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that showed adverse effects from the chemicals at far lower levels than EPA had previously acknowledged.  Some states have already acted—neighboring New Jersey, for example, has already regulated PFNA, a PFAS, and is also poised to regulate PFOA and PFOS. 

At the beginning of the year, the Governor promised to place new limits on PFOA and PFOS—He made good on his promise today.   And with any luck, the State will adopt regulations early next year.