Public water suppliers across New York State will be required to test for and ultimately slash harmful levels of the synthetic organic chemicals PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, according to new rules just adopted by State Health officials.
The rules direct drinking water suppliers to test for PFOA and PFOS in their water supplies, report to the public on the results and, if exceedances of the new standards are detected, install new treatment technology that can capture these contaminants.
Once fully implemented, the state’s new standards will be among the toughest in the nation for these contaminants.
The new limits, or Maximum Contaminant Levels, are 10 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 10 ppt for PFOS. New York, under Governor Andrew Cuomo's leadership, also adopted a 1 part per billion standard for 1,4 Dioxane—becoming the first state in the nation to set an enforceable cap on this pernicious pollutant.
PFOA and PFOS were used since the 1960s in a wide range of consumer and industrial applications, including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant clothing and microwave popcorn packaging. They are members of a class of man-made compounds that have been referred to as “forever chemicals” because once discharged, they remain in the environment and bioaccumulate in our bodies.
A likely source PFOA and PFOS water contamination in New York State has been firefighting foam. This foam, sprayed at airports around the state in training exercises, has been linked to groundwater contamination in communities—including Newburgh, Plattsburgh, Rome and Southampton.
Exposure to PFOA and PFOS has been associated with serious health effects, including kidney and testicular cancer, liver disease, thyroid problems, changes in immune systems, decreased fertility and adverse developmental effects.
It was the 2014 discovery of PFOA in the drinking water supplies of the village of Hoosick Falls, near Albany, that first brought this class of toxic chemicals to public attention in New York.
More than two years ago, my NRDC colleague Kim Ong was among the first to testify before the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council, presenting detailed scientific evidence on the dangers of these chemicals and urging adoption of enforceable drinking water quality standards for PFOA and PFOS.
The adoption of new safeguards is particularly good news for Long Islanders. Public water wells there, including those in Hempstead, Mineola, Yaphank, Calverton, Westhampton Beach, Hampton Bays have already detected PFOA or PFOS in their supplies.
Fortunately, state-of-the-art treatment technologies, including Granular Activated Carbon filtration, are now available to remove PFOA and PFOS from drinking water. New York State officials have estimated that as many of 23% of public water wells in the State may ultimately need to be treated to remove these chemicals.
Although PFOA and PFOS have been largely phased out by U.S. manufacturers, they remain in some imported products, and similar substances in the same chemical family are still in wide use.
The federal government should long ago have set nationwide drinking water quality standards for PFOA, PFOS and the other forever chemicals. But that hasn’t happened.
In fact, for months, the Trump Administration suppressed a governmental report which found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s unenforceable “guidance” levels for PFOA and PFOS were not sufficiently protective of public health.
Now, state health agencies are finally jumping in to close the regulatory gap. In addition to the new rules here in New York, state officials in New Jersey and Michigan have also acted recently to set limits of PFOA and PFOS in public drinking water supplies.
But PFOA and PFOS are not the only “forever chemical” problems. There are as many as 8,000 separate but related compounds in the same PFAS family. And until the use of this entire class of chemicals is sharply restricted, it will be possible for producers to simply substitute chemical cousins of PFOA and PFOS, despite the new limits on these two contaminants.
Before declaring victory then, New York State health officials and their colleagues in other forward-looking states must restrict the use of the entire class of PFAS chemicals, phasing out all non-essential uses of these nasty poisons. My NRDC colleague Anna Reade makes a compelling case for this essential next step here.