California on PFAS: Missing the Forest Through the Trees

California is missing an important opportunity to deal more comprehensively with a large class of toxic, ‘forever’ chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in our drinking water. Last Friday, the California State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) announced updated guidelines for local water agencies to follow in detecting and reporting the presence of PFOA and PFOS, just two out of thousands in this problematic class of chemicals. While the guidelines are the strictest, most-health protective levels proposed in the nation for these two PFAS chemicals, we are deeply disappointed by the Water Board’s decision to focus on just two of the many PFAS that have been detected in California drinking water.

Specifically, the Water Board announced:

  • A new notification level of 5.1 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 6.5 ppt for PFOS—notification levels are nonregulatory, precautionary health-based thresholds for concentrations in drinking water that warrant notification to the Water Board and further monitoring and assessment of risk and need for action
  • The response level for PFOA and PFOS will remain at 70 ppt until the fall—response levels are nonregulatory, precautionary health-based thresholds that are set higher than notification levels and represent a recommended level beyond which drinking water systems should consider taking a water source out of service or treat the water if that option is available to them
  • A request of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to develop public health goals for PFOA and PFOS, the next step towards establishing an enforceable standard in drinking water—a public health goal is the level of a chemical contaminant in drinking water that does not pose a significant risk to health

PFAS have become a serious public health concern due to their extreme persistence (they don’t break down easily), high mobility (they spread quickly in the environment), and potential to cause harmful health effects at very low doses. PFAS exposure has been linked with a wide range of serious illness, including cancer of the kidneys and testicles, thyroid disease, pregnancy-related hypertension, high cholesterol that can lead to heart disease, lower fertility, harm to developing fetuses, infants and children, liver disease, and immune system toxicity. PFAS are widely used in consumer products such as nonstick cookware, grease-proof food packaging, and stain and water-resistance clothing, carpets, and furniture. They are also used in cosmetics and in “aqueous film forming foam,” which is used, for example, at airports and military facilities in training exercises and to suppress fires.

Due to their widespread use and persistence, PFAS now contaminate our food, air, water and bodies. National drinking water monitoring several years ago revealed PFAS contamination in 28 public water systems in California, serving approximately 3.5 million Californians. Four PFAS (PFOA, PFOS, PFNA and PFHxS) were detected in the national testing, however, many more PFAS have been detected in smaller California-specific studies. National biomonitoring has detected the same four PFAS found in California drinking water from the national survey in the blood of over 90% of Americans tested. The California Biomonitoring program recently released results (here and here) on its Asian/Pacific Islander Community Exposures (ACE) Project, which showed that seven PFAS were detected in over 90% of participants, some at levels higher than national averages, and a total of 19 different PFAS were detected in participants.

NRDC and other groups have long called for California to take more aggressive action to address these harmful chemicals, in line with several other states. For example, Vermont has an enforceable standard for 5 different PFAS at a combined level of 20 ppt and is looking into how to regulate a broader array of PFAS, potentially as a class or sub-classes. The State has already acknowledged the health harms associated with the whole class of chemicals. The Department of Toxic Substance Control has therefore proposed to regulate the PFAS class in carpets and rugs. Furthermore, the Water Board expressed interest in class-based approach to regulating PFAS in an informational hearing on PFAS last year. However, the Water Board’s proposal, which it states is part of the “Board’s comprehensive effort to assess the scope of contamination of drinking water supplies by PFOA and PFOS,” is not in-line with previous statements and actions - such as the Water Board’s aggressive timeline to investigate potential sites of PFAS contamination, where it is requiring the testing for a minimum of 14 PFAS.

In order to protect the health of Californians, the Water Board, and other relevant California agencies, must take a truly comprehensive approach to addressing PFAS contamination in our environment and bodies—and concentrating on a just two trees in a forest of almost 5,000 will compromise the State’s ability to both get a comprehensive picture of the problem or develop appropriately comprehensive solutions to the problem. For further discussion on how to comprehensively address PFAS in drinking water please see our blog and report on Michigan's own PFAS contamination problem. 

About the Authors

Anna Reade

Staff Scientist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program

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