On June 15, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced updated advisory health guidelines specifying safe levels of PFAS in our drinking water.
According to the National Science Institute, Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFAS, are a class of over 9000 compounds and counting with unique chemical structures that repel water.
They have come to be referred to as “forever chemicals” because thousands of years will pass before they break down. PFAS have been found in the blood of every American tested so far. They are ubiquitous.
“People on the front lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” said EPA administrator Michael S. Regan. “That’s why the EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment.”
Halfway down the EPA press release is the kicker. In light of “newly available science” and in accordance with EPA’s responsibility to protect public health, the EPA has re-evaluated its previously recommended “safe levels.” The previous maximum contaminant levels for PFAS advised by the EPA were 70 parts per trillion.
Under the newly released advisory guidelines, the EPA is now recommending drastically lower maximum contaminant levels.
Back in July 2020, New York State had already set its own maximum contaminant levels at ten parts per trillion, 60 parts per trillion lower than the EPA recommendations.
The new levels recommended by the EPA are substantially less than even New York State’s maximum allowable PFAS contaminant level, which was already among the strictest in the country.
Two members of the PFAS family, PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid), are particularly pernicious and have been singled out with new “safe levels” set at .02 and .004 parts per trillion respectively. That’s “trillion” with twelve zeros. In effect, the EPA has confirmed that there are no safe levels of exposure whatsoever to these chemical compounds.
A decade ago, the EPA, to its credit, began to require public water-supply systems to monitor for several PFAS chemicals and as a result of the data collected, the State of New York was able to set its maximum contaminant level.
Legislation banning the use of PFAS outright in food packaging already exists in seven states. New York is one of them.
Starting December 31, 2022, both corporations and individuals in New York will be prohibited from distributing, selling, or offering for sale in New York any food packaging containing PFAS as intentionally added chemicals.
Food packaging is defined as a package or packaging component that is intended for direct food contact and is comprised, in substantial part, of paper, paperboard, or other materials originally derived from plant fibers.
This dramatic prohibition comes about because scientists have discovered that particles of the packaging which wraps or contains food can break off as microscopic dust to be inhaled or swallowed.
PFAS are known endocrine disruptors, meaning the human body mistakes them for fatty acids, incorporates them into the blood stream, and mistakenly plugs them into the biological activities performed by actual fatty acids, essentially crossing the wires of our hormonal systems in the process.
Due to their potential to bio-accumulate, whatever problems they cause in the body becomes more prominent as more PFAS are ingested or inhaled.
The pace of action to expand monitoring this entire family of chemicals increases as well.
On December 23, 2021 Governor Kathy Hochul signed a legislative package of new environmental bills, one of which requires all water utilities across the state to test for 23 additional PFAS chemicals as well.
Notification levels for each of those 23 PFAS will also be set by the NYS Department of Health. Where a contaminant exceeds the notification level, the water utility must mail a notice to its customers providing background on the PFAS discovered, the potential risk to human health, and what the water utility may be doing to address the situation.
During the June 17 Legislative Gazette radio broadcast on WAMC, the topic was dissected thoroughly. Rob Hayes, director of Clean Water at Environmental Advocates New York said that “about 700 water utilities across the state have found PFOA or PFOS in their drinking water, but only about 200 of them had been required to clean up that drinking water.”
To be clear, before the bill was signed by the governor, water utilities in New York State were already compelled to monitor the drinking water supply for a list of contaminants provided by the NYS Department of Health. The all-important subpart 5 dash 1 of the sanitary code for the State of New York compels it.
Among that list of contaminants to monitor are the two aforementioned PFAS, Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
“We have no PFOAs or PFAS in our drinking water,” says Superintendent Matthew Dysard of the Kingston Water Department. “We last tested on August 21,2021 and we’ll be testing shortly again for our annual test. Our monitoring is reduced because we’ve had no hits. We don’t anticipate that changing because there’s no reason that we would have any of that in our water supply. We get our water from Mink Hollow up in Woodstock.”
According to the EPA, the major sources for PFAS in the drinking water supply are fire training and fire response sites, industrial sites, military bases, landfills and wastewater treatment plants.
With headwaters near Tannersville, the Cooper Lake reservoir, fed by the Mink Hollow stream, is the principal source of Kingston’s water. There is no landfill to leach into the ground near stream or reservoir. There are no industrial operations out that way to produce chemical runoff. There are no fire training sites, no military bases where the PFAS are found in fire-fighting foam. So far so good for Kingston. Ditto Woodstock. New Paltz. High Falls. Marlborough, and most other Ulster county water departments, according to the claims in their annual water quality reports. But not all.
As reported in 2021 drinking water quality reports submitted by the water departments themselves, both PFOS and PFOA were detected in the drinking water supply provided to 110 people in Glasco, in the Town of Saugerties, by Bluestone Public water.
PFOS alone was found in the drinking water supply of 402 customers in Lake Katrine, Town of Ulster, provided by Halycon Park Water District.
Bluestone says their water supply comes from groundwater drawn from two drilled wells, located in the northeast section of Bluestone Park. Halycon draws from two wells, which are located on Douglas Drive in Lake Katrine.
On January 27, 2021, PFOA was detected at less than .10 micrograms per liter in the Bluestone drinking water supply.
On August 24, 2021, PFOS was detected at less than 1.72 nanograms per liter in the Bluestone drinking water supply.
On June 10, 2021 PFOS was detected in the Halycon drinking water supply at .682 ng/l.
The amounts reported were in micrograms and nanograms per liter, amounts so small that none of those reported qualify as a violation of the maximum levels set by the State of New York. But how the PFAS got into the drinking water is thequestion that keeps water department executives up at night.
And that still leaves waste water treatment plants (WWTP).
Of course, any PFAS contamination which has shown up downstream in its facility is not the fault of the wastewater treatment plant. Any contaminant has been introduced into the effluent by the consumer who has unwittingly ingested abraded pieces of the PFAS products. Industrial sources may also be considered.
But it is the unhappy responsibility of the waste water treatment plant to deal with it because studies have shown that they are the primary pathway for PFAS to the environment.
As is the case with the facility in Kingston, located down on the Strand next to the Rondout Creek, there are at least 17 wastewater treatment plants between Albany and New York City sited adjacent to the Hudson, or connecting waterways, to allow for the efficient release of treated effluent.
Saugerties, Catskill, Hudson, Kingston, Rhinebeck, Albany, Poughkeepsie to start with. The contributions of hundreds of thousands of Hudson Valley residents finds its way into the Hudson River day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And the forever chemical travels along with the water cycle.
Evaporation, condensation, precipitation — the chemical compound has been found wherever water has been found. In soil, sediment, air and even the polar ice caps.
Conventional waste water treatment methods do not effectively remove PFAS if discharged directly to the sewer system by industries or contaminated sites.
That solid portion of wastewater which remains after treatment, known as sludge, will also be found to contain the forever chemicals. While not pumped into the waterways, conventional methods for disposal (the biomass is used for fertilizer, sent to a landfill or incinerated) are not effective solutions. The PFAS chemicals are forever.
As with almost any problem, the most efficient solution is to solve it at the source and prevent the chemical from ever entering water supply, waste water or waterway.
Frustratingly, there are always profit-minded industries who dig in their heels for as long as possible, regardless of the effects to the environment, animal life or even the health of their fellow humans.
Regulating harmful chemicals is often like a game of whack a mole. The next generation forever chemicals are already on the way. HFPO DIMER acid and its ammonium salt known as GENX chemicals, are named so not for the angsty generation but for a trade name.
Spreading awareness coupled with passing legislation are the monotonous solutions to compelling the producers of these chemicals to desist.
Some timid souls can be forgiven for feeling hopelessness and accepting the inevitable contamination of our water supplies. And for them, almost four years ago now, on August 23, 2018 in an article published by the EPA itself, the agency discusses reducing PFAS from the drinking water with the use of activated charcoal, ion exchange or reverse osmosis, all technologies available via filters which are installed at home.
But these are only temporary solutions for those with deep pockets. By and large the regulatory industries and the water departments working together in the State of New York have done a commendable job keeping the drinking water in Ulster County among the best in the United States. Which is lucky for us.
The EPA’s just released heath guidelines regarding PFAS is just an advisory opinion, that is, it is legally toothless. The companies responsible for the forever chemicals like it that way. And it’s not like we can live without water.
All Drinking Water Quality Reports for service areas are posted on corresponding city or Town Water Department Websites.