N.J. agency wants to reduce levels of cancer-causing chemical in drinking water
A New Jersey agency has proposed adopting what would be the most stringent standard in the nation to control levels of a cancer-causing chemical linked to an array of health problems and which is prevalent in drinking water systems across the state.
The chemical, commonly called PFOA or C8, has been used in the manufacture of stain-resistant carpets, waterproof clothing, non-stick cooking pans and other products that make life less messy. It has spread so far through the environment that it can be found everywhere from the fish in the Delaware River to polar bears in the Arctic.
It has also become the subject of thousands of lawsuits.
The state’s Drinking Water Quality Institute on Thursday proposed the new standard, which if adopted would require water utilities to treat water to reduce the amount of PFOA reaching taps.
“The institute is taking a pretty aggressive approach on PFOA,” said Howard Woods Jr., a private consultant to water utilities and former water company executive. “It’s a good idea. The institute is deliberate and not rash. The stuff is all over the place.”
Smaller water utilities, including some in North Jersey, have said the extra treatment would be a major financial hit.
“System by system you’ll find issues where the cost of treatment is prohibitive compared to finding an alternative water source, so some towns might abandon wells and buy water from a neighboring system,” Woods said.
The current state health advisory standard for PFOA is 0.04 parts per billion. The proposed standard is 0.014 – nearly three times lower - and many drinking water systems in the state have had levels above that.
The contaminant is found much more frequently in drinking water in New Jersey than in many other states. Sampling conducted by the state in 2006 and 2009 showed PFOA at levels above the state’s current standard in Garfield, Atlantic City, Brick, Greenwich, Montclair, Orange, South Orange, Paulsboro, Rahway and New Jersey American Water’s Logan, Raritan and Penns Grove systems.
The Montclair system has been blending water and testing to determine if that lowers the levels. The two Orange treatment plants with high readings have been shut down. So has a treatment plant in Paulsboro. New Jersey American has installed treatment systems to remove PFOA at its Penns Grove and Logan systems, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
More recently, the federal Environmental Protection Agency over the past two years detected PFOA in levels of at least 0.02 parts per billion in 14 drinking water systems, including Ridgewood Water, Fair Lawn, Garfield, Wallington and Hawthorne.
The institute’s proposed new standard drew praise from environmental advocates. “PFOA is a very significant carcinogen, it doesn’t degrade in the environment and levels are increasing over time, so it’s entirely appropriate for the state to regulate it,” said David Pringle, Clean Water Action’s New Jersey campaign director, who served on the Drinking Water Quality Institute from 2002 to 2010 and pushed the institute to address the issue.
The institute Thursday also unanimously approved recommending a maximum standard of 0.03 parts per billion for 1,2,3-trichloropropane, another contaminant found in drinking water. It is a man-made chemical solvent and a likely human carcinogen.
PFOA – short for perfluorooctanoic acid - is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, as well as high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and other illnesses. There are also probable links to low birth weight and decreased immune responses.
Yet, it is among thousands of contaminants that are not regulated by federal and state governments.
The chemical is so prevalent now that it can be found in the blood serum of most people in the United States.
In 2005, DuPont settled for $16.5 million with the federal government after the EPA said the company failed to report information it had showing that PFOA posed substantial human health risks, information the company knew as early as 1981.
In 2006, the EPA asked the eight major producers of PFOA to eliminate the product by 2015. By 2010, those manufacturers had decreased emissions of the contaminant at their plants by 95 percent. DuPont has said it phased out PFOA by 2013.
In a statement on PFOA posted this year on its website, DuPont said that it “always acted responsibly based on the health and environmental information that was available to the industry and regulators about PFOA at the time of its usage.” The company said that it “was proactive in taking precautions to guard against any potential harm,” and that it “took more precautions in the use and handling of PFOA than any other company.”
In 2011 DuPont agreed to settle two class action suits for $8.3 million after it was alleged that PFOA from the company’s Chambers Works facility in Salem County contaminated drinking water supplies there. The more than 4,000 households involved were given a choice of $800 in cash or an in-home water filtration system.
About 3,500 lawsuits have been filed against DuPont over PFOA in West Virginia and Ohio. In the suits, residents claim they got sick or had a relative die because they drank water laced with PFOA from the DuPont plant that manufactured Teflon in Parkersburg, W.Va. The company could face up to $1 billion in potential damages.
PFOA seems more likely to contaminate water systems that use wells drilled into groundwater aquifers, such as those of Garfield, Fair Lawn and Ridgewood Water, which supplies drinking water to 60,000 people in Glen Rock, Midland Park, Ridgewood and Wyckoff.
Less affected are systems that rely on surface water, like rivers and reservoirs, including the reservoir system operated along the Hackensack River by Suez North America, and the treatment facility that Passaic Valley Water Commission uses to pump water out of the Passaic River.
Research indicates that filters made of granular activated carbon can remove PFOA and similar chemicals from water.
Willard Bierwas, facilities manager for Garfield, has said treating for PFOA “would be a major expense for every municipality in the state.”
Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club countered that the technology is affordable and can even be used to remove other contaminants from the water. “All this great work by the institute will just go to waste unless the DEP adopts this proposal,” Tittel said.
It could be years before the new standard became official, and Governor Christie’s administration could ultimately decide to reject the institute’s recommendation.
DEP spokesman Bob Considine declined to comment on the proposed new PFOA standard, saying the agency wants the institute’s process play out. The institute’s presentation at a meeting Thursday triggered a 60-day public comment period. The institute would review the comments before making a final recommendation to the DEP.