New Jersey is finally getting two dangerous chemicals linked to serious health problems—including cancer—out of its drinking water. The state finalized regulations today that set maximum contaminant levels for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) at concentrations that are among the strictest in the nation—a huge milestone for all New Jerseyans.
PFOA and PFOS are two chemicals in a group of problematic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFOA and PFOS 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 dental floss.
Unfortunately, PFOA and PFOS are 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.
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.
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.
In the absence of federal regulation, New Jersey drafted its own regulations that would set maximum permissible concentrations of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. New Jersey proposed regulating PFOA and PFOS at a level of 14 ppt and 13 ppt, respectively.
In May 2019, NRDC commented on New Jersey’s draft regulations, stating that while these proposed regulations were a great step forward, they could go even further. An NRDC peer-reviewed assessment of the health effects of several PFAS concludes that there is no safe level of these chemicals in our water, as they have been linked to staggering health problems at even very low levels. Based on this assessment, we recommend that all states set a combined MCL of 2 ppt for all PFAS.
Today, New Jersey finalized the regulations of PFOA and PFOS at the levels they had originally proposed. While not as low as we recommend, this is a big step forward and an important victory. The absence of a drinking water standard for these harmful contaminants allows government agencies, public water suppliers, and companies, after discovering unsafe levels of PFOA and PFOS in the water supply, to do nothing and defend their inaction by simply saying that even they did all that was required under federal law. Now, all New Jerseyans can breathe a sigh of relief—water suppliers in New Jersey will be required to filter any water in which they find levels of PFOA and PFOS that exceed the regulations.
But we cannot stop at regulating just PFOA and PFOS—there are thousands of these toxic “forever” chemicals, and until they’re regulated together as a class, we’ll never get a grip on this pervasive problem. Now more than ever, states must listen to the science and adopt the strongest possible standards.
And states cannot wait for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to act—like New Jersey, they must step up to fill this regulatory gap.
It is now New York’s turn to clean up their drinking water—this week, the New York State Department of Health is supposed to convene the Public Health and Health Planning Council to vote on their proposed drinking water regulations of PFOA and PFOS. Please urge New York to step up and set safe standards for our drinking water, too.
New Jersey took a big step today in ensuring their drinking water is safe for all of its residents. Please contact the New York State Department of Health and let them know that we all deserve to drink water that won’t make us sick.