UPDATE: On June 1, 2020, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced that the state is set to adopt drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS—at 14 parts per trillion for PFOA and 13 parts per trillion for PFOS—which, once enacted, would become the strongest drinking water safeguards in the country. While this will go a long way to protect New Jersey residents, there is no safe level of these toxic “forever” chemicals in our water.
New Jersey’s proposed regulation of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water does not go far enough, according to comments submitted by NRDC to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection last week.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are two chemicals in a group of concerning chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These, along with other PFAS chemicals, have been used widely in consumer and industrial products since the 1940s, including in nonstick cookware (e.g., Teflon), stain-resistant repellents put on carpets and fabric (e.g., Scotchgard and Stainmaster), paper and cardboard food packaging (e.g., fast food wrappers), firefighting foam, water-resistant textiles (e.g., Gore-Tex), and personal care products like floss. Due to their widespread use and the fact that they don’t break down and can spread quickly through our environment, PFAS are now detected in the bodies of 99 percent of Americans.
Unfortunately, PFAS are also associated with serious health effects such as cancer, hormone disruption, liver and kidney damage, developmental and reproductive harm, changes in cholesterol levels, and immune system toxicity—some of which can occur at extremely low levels of exposure.
New Jersey is especially hard-hit by PFAS contamination: 1.6 million of the 6 million people exposed to levels of PFOA and PFOS that exceed EPA’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) live in New Jersey—the most of any single state. Elevated levels of PFOA, PFOS, and other PFAS chemicals have been found across New Jersey, including in Atlantic City, Bedminster, Ridgewood, Washington, Gloucester, Elizabeth, and Edison. The map below illustrates total combined PFAS levels in New Jersey water supplies where some testing for PFAS has taken place.
Total PFAS levels in New Jersey water supplies
In March, New Jersey proposed regulating PFOA and PFOS at a level of 13 ppt and 14 ppt in drinking water, respectively. While this is certainly an improvement over the lax federal health advisory of 70 ppt, these limits, known as maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), are not enough to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
In April, NRDC released a peer-reviewed assessment of the health effects of several PFAS and developed its own recommendations around, among other things, an appropriate MCL for several PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. In that report, we recommend setting a combined MCL of 2 ppt for both PFOA and PFOS.
This low MCL protects against all health effects associated with PFOA and PFOS, including immune system suppression and altered mammary gland development, which can occur at extremely low levels of exposure. Disruption of mammary gland development can lead to a number of health effects later in life, including difficulty in breastfeeding and an increase in susceptibility to breast cancer. Immune system suppression can result in lowered vaccine response and decreased resistance to viruses and other disease-causing agents.
NRDC’s recommended MCL also accounts for differences in how fetuses, infants, and children are exposed to these toxic chemicals. This population drinks more water per body weight than adults and is more vulnerable to PFAS exposure because their bodies are still growing. Ignoring these differences by basing exposure estimates on adults puts infants and children at risk. To evaluate New Jersey’s proposed MCLs, NRDC used New Jersey’s data on PFOA and PFOS in a model developed by Minnesota’s Department of Health to estimate a person’s exposure for the first 55 years of their life if they were to drink water contaminated with 14 ppt PFOA. The model predicts infants and children will have higher levels of exposure than adults for the first 10 years of their lives, and for the first four years of their lives they would exceed New Jersey’s total allowable level of exposure for PFOA from all sources, not just drinking water.
Amid growing knowledge about the harms of PFAS and the lack of action at the federal level, New Jersey is stepping up to issue enforceable standards in drinking water. The absence of a drinking water standard allows government agencies, public water suppliers, and companies to defend their actions by simply saying that even after the discovery of PFOA and PFOS in the water supply, they did all that was required under federal law. States cannot wait for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to act—like New Jersey, they must step up to fill this regulatory gap.
However, New Jersey can do better. Its proposed MCLs fail to fully protect our health and the environment from PFAS contamination. The agency must step up to fix these problems by adopting a combined MCL of 2 ppt for PFOA and PFOS that protects the most vulnerable among us.