NYS Drinking Water Quality Council Moves to Regulate PFAS

After an 8-month lull, the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council broke their silence and finally met to contemplate the regulation of PFOA and PFOS, two toxic chemicals that have been found in drinking water supplies across the country, including here in New York.

PFOA and PFOS (shorthand for perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) have been discovered in tap water across the state, from Hoosick Falls and Newburgh to Plattsburgh and Southampton. They are toxic, manmade chemicals that, even at very low levels, are associated with many serious health effects, including cancer.

Since the 1960s, manufacturers used PFOA or PFOS in a wide variety of products, including Teflon, Scotchgard, paper and cardboard food packaging, firefighting foam, textiles, and toothpaste. And once dumped into the environment, they do not degrade, and once in the human body, they do not leave for years. They are already present in 98 percent of all people.

Because PFOA and PFOS are not regulated, there is no requirement to test water supplies for the presence of these chemicals, or to filter the water when they are discovered.

Much was revealed at yesterday’s meeting. NRDC announced that, in light of new studies that have emerged about the dangers of PFOA and PFOS even at extremely low levels, we are recommending that New York State set a combined maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS at a level between 2 and 5 parts per trillion (ppt). This is an update from the recommendation we included in a February 2018 petition to the Council of 4 to 10 ppt, which we amended in light of new information about the harmfulness of these chemicals at even very low levels. NRDC consultant Dr. Judith Schreiber explained further during an interview with Spectrum News.  

New York State Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said that he would feel uncomfortable with an MCL that was any higher than 14 ppt, the standard that is poised to be adopted by New Jersey.

The Council also disclosed that they had been considering regulating not just PFOA and PFOS, but also of PFAS, the group of chemicals of which PFOA and PFOS are a part.

The Council is planning to make a recommendation at its next meeting, which will be held in either November or December of this year. We look forward to the next meeting, and hope that the Council adopt an MCL that is based on the latest science and protective of the most vulnerable populations in New York.


Kimberly Ong’s comments at the meeting:

Good afternoon. My name is Kimberly Ong, and I’m an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

I’m joined today by NRDC consultant Judith Schreiber, former scientist for the New York State Department of Health and for the New York State Attorney General. She’ll be speaking later and providing the scientific basis for my recommendations today.

As you may recall, at the last meeting of the Council back in February, NRDC petitioned the Council to set a combined MCL for PFOA and PFOS at a level between 4 and 10 ppt.

Much has happened since then—In particular, we’ve learned 3 things:

First, PFOA and PFOS are even more widespread than previously thought—since February, additional drinking water supplies have been found to be contaminated across the country, including in New York, in places like in East Quogue.

Second, we are discovering that PFOA and PFOS are harmful at levels lower than we’ve ever previously believed.

Notably, since our last meeting, ATSDR released a draft report on PFOA and PFOS. In light of this and other new research, we’ve concluded that there is no level of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water that can be considered safe.

In several weeks, we will be submitting an addendum to our original petition with a revised recommended MCL at a level between 2 and 5 ppt. As Dr. Schreiber will explain, this is based on an MCLG of 0, and then adjusted up in light of detection abilities.

Third, we have come to realize that PFOA and PFOS are just 2 chemicals in a larger class known as PFAS. This entire class of chemicals poses similar and synergistic health risks, and if we just regulate PFOA and PFOS without eventually regulating the entire class, manufacturers can simply replace PFOA and PFOS with other PFAS chemicals, causing this dangerous cycle of contamination and regulation to repeat over and over.

Finally, despite these developments, EPA has refused to act. Some states are acting where EPA has not—New Jersey recently became the first state to regulate PFNA, a type of PFAS. And New Jersey is also poised to regulate PFOA and PFOS at levels that, if adopted, would be the strictest in the nation.

But New York State has still not acted. When this Council was first established, the Governor directed the Council to recommend an MCL for PFOA and PFOS by this October. But that deadline has come and gone. And while we’re glad to know that the Council is on track to setting an MCL, we’re disappointed that it’s taken so long.

New York State is overdue. The science is there. Set a combined MCL at a level between 2 and 5 ppt.


NRDC Consultant, Dr. Judith Schreiber’s, comments at the meeting:

Good morning. My name is Dr. Judith Schreiber, and I am happy to be here today to see so much interest in this important issue facing the DWQC.

I am pleased to provide comments as a consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on PFOA, PFOS, and other chemicals in this class. My comments will focus on risk assessment approaches for determination of a Maximum Contaminant Level for public health protection.

As a public health toxicologist for many years, I have written and assessed evaluations of chemical toxicity for numerous chemicals. Today, I will discuss some factors that impact the derivation of MCLs used by health authorities.

What we know

Scientists and health authorities acknowledge that PFOA, PFOS and related chemicals in this class have serious adverse effects on human health, and particularly on fetal, infant and childhood development.

These adverse effects include developmental effects during pregnancy and early childhood, changes related to puberty, liver toxicity, effects on sperm quality, and immunological effects. PFOA and PFOS have been found to increase risk of tumors in animal studies as well as in people (kidney and testicular cancer). The EPA, ATSDR, the International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified PFOA and PFOS as carcinogens. Health experts agree on the significance of the adverse effects associated with these chemicals. The challenge is how to take these findings into account to develop a protective MCL.

What we don’t know

Risk assessment for public health protection must account for what is known about a chemical’s adverse effects, but also what is not known about its effects. In addition, we must take into account differences between toxic effects in study animals compared to humans, variation within the human population, differences in absorption, metabolism and excretion, and other unknowns not studied. For example, mammary gland effects shown in early development have not been adequately evaluated for effects that may be seen later in life, such as breast cancer, endometriosis and hormone-related effects. Effects on sperm quality and testicular cancer suggest the need to study other male hormone-related effects. Clearly, there are significant unknowns and datagaps.

Scientists use uncertainty factors to provide a margin between the levels that cause an adverse effect and levels that are deemed acceptable for public health protection. We don’t want people to be exposed to levels that cause effects in study animals. Uncertainty factors are applied to account for adverse effects at a particular level of exposure, as well as incomplete understanding or availability of studies upon which toxicity is appraised. 

Derivation of a Maximum Contaminant Level

Due to the serious adverse health effects, we are particularly concerned about effects on fetal, infant and childhood development and have applied the most protective assessment factors to insure protection of sensitive members of the population.  We use a combined uncertainty factor of 1,000 to account for differences between animals and humans, variation in humans, effects on fetal development and the young, and an inadequate database.  Using the same study basis as EPA and state regulators, we derived an MCL of 4 parts per trillion (ppt). Further, immunological effects have become more certain as newer studies have become available, as reviewed by ATSDR in 2018. Interpretation of the immunological studies suggests an MCL of 1 ppt.

As a practical matter, the detection levels for these chemicals in water range from about 0.25 to 5 ppt, depending on the specific chemical, and are therefore measurable at the proposed MCL.

MCLG

Due to the acknowledged cancer risks, we propose a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) of zero, in line with EPA’s policy for carcinogens.

To summarize, PFOA and PFOS are acknowledged to be chemicals with known adverse health risks and increased cancer risks. Therefore, we propose an MCL in the range of 1 to 4 ppt to protect public health, and an MCLG of zero based on cancer risks. 

NRDC will be submitting additional comments to the DWQC.

Thank you.

About the Authors

Kimberly Ong

Senior Attorney, NY Regional, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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