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EANY's Rob Hayes discusses proposed EPA guidelines for PFOA, PFOS

PFOA formula
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Chemical structure of PFOA

On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new health advisory levels for two pervasive PFAS compounds.

The federal agency recommended health advisory levels of .004 parts per trillion for PFOA and .02 for PFOS.

Those levels are far below EPA’s current health guidance level of 70 parts per trillion and New York’s Maximum Contaminant Levels of 10 parts per trillion for the compounds.

Elevated PFAS levels have been linked to various ill-health effects including forms of cancer. In recent years, communities across the Northeast have confirmed local contamination, hooked up alternate water sources, and worked to track potential health problem patterns.

To learn more about the proposed thresholds and how they could affect policy in New York, WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard spoke with Rob Hayes, Director of Clean Water at Environmental Advocates NY.

EPA yesterday confirmed that there is no safe level of exposure to PFOA or PFOS in drinking water. The new health-based guidelines that they proposed are so close to zero, that they're actually below the levels that we can currently detect in drinking water right now. So really, wherever these chemicals are detected in drinking water, there is a concern to human health.

EPA’s advisory level was 70 parts per trillion. New York, a couple of years ago, lowered its advisory level to 10 parts per trillion. But we're talking about .004 parts per trillion, point .02 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. So, is this going to up end, all of the – I guess you can call it progress – that the state has made over the last couple of years to try and regulate these compounds?

So I think there's a few important things to mention here. I think first is that EPA’s levels are just guidance levels right now about what amount of these chemicals in drinking water is safe. What New York did a few years ago in setting maximum contaminant levels at 10 parts per trillion is saying, ‘OK, above this level, the water utility is required to clean up their drinking water and remove this contamination so there isn't a risk to public health.’

But as we've seen over the last few years, as those standards have been implemented, there are a lot of water utilities that are detecting these chemicals below 10 parts per trillion but still now in a concerning range based on these new EPA health guidelines.

You know, I think about 700 water utilities across the state have found PFOA or PFOS in their drinking water. But only about 200 of them have been required to clean up that drinking water. That leaves many, many New Yorkers, possibly millions of New Yorkers exposed to chemicals that could make them sick when they turn on the tap.

So the big question now is, will Governor Hochul’s administration respond to this new EPA science? Will they propose strengthening New York standards for PFOA and PFOS, dropping them as close to two parts per trillion as possible at the lowest level we can reliably detect and regulating other PFAS in drinking water as well. You know, it's just not PFOA and PFOS that we should be concerned about. There are thousands of chemicals in the PFAS family. We need to address all of these chemicals, if we're going to fully protect public health.

These compounds are pervasive. I mean, they're everywhere. Could you help explain how exactly widespread these chemicals are?

You're absolutely right, that they're everywhere. Almost every American has PFAS in our blood, which is extremely concerning. They're found in so many products that we use every single day in nonstick pans and packaging and clothing. You know, it's everywhere, as you said. And New York State has been taking steps in recent years to start to ban these chemicals in the use of products, so that we turn off that tap and stop them from migrating into our drinking water.

But of course, there's already been a lot of contamination in our drinking water. And that has to be a priority for New York, to make sure that when New Yorkers turn on the tap, clean water comes out, that water is safe to drink for all of our state residents. And that's where he hope Governor Hochul and her administration will really respond to this new science and say, ‘All right, it's time for New York to strengthen our standards on PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS as well.’

So the EPA has proposed these very low advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS. But, as we've seen with the change of administrations, the recommendations or the actions of the EPA can kind of blow with the wind. So is there a chance that if powers change in a couple of years, that this would be rolled back or wouldn't be acted upon?

You know, it's always a potential and I think that's where New York's leadership on this issue is so important. You know, we really set the standard for other states and even the federal government in terms of how we're going to protect New Yorkers from PFAS. And in fact, you know, there's a great example Governor Hochul’s administration, actually, in the next three days, faces a deadline to regulate 23 More PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Many states have never attempted to regulate these PFAS before. We will really be setting the standard for how to protect public health from these chemicals. And so Governor Hochul now has the opportunity to say, ‘We're going to set these standards at the lowest levels possible to provide New Yorkers that full protection for their health.’

I want to speak about this recent lawsuit that was thrown out by a judge in New York. 3M had sued the state against its 10 parts per trillion MCL for PFOA and PFOS. Do you anticipate more lawsuits over these even lower numbers?

Oh, the chemical industry will always try to avoid responsibility for the pollution that they have caused. That's exactly what this lawsuit brought by the chemical company 3M was all about. They don't want to pay for the fact that they have poisoned people. And we were so pleased to see that the Albany Supreme Court said, ‘No, we are not going to get rid of New York's drinking water standards for these chemicals so you can avoid, you know, the responsibility to take responsibility for the problem that you've caused.’

So fortunately, New York's drinking water standards will continue to clean up our water. But absolutely, the chemical companies are not going away. And they will fight every new standard tooth and nail because they know that ultimately, they should be the ones that are held responsible. They should be the ones that bear the costs of the contamination in our drinking water.

So what's next for EANY and the advocacy work that it does in the next few weeks?

Well, as I was, as I was mentioning a bit ago, in three days, Governor Hochul’s administration has a deadline to set new drinking water standards for 23 PFAS chemicals. These standards are really going to be nation-leading, or potentially nation-leading in terms of how we're protecting public health from these forever chemicals. So we hope that Governor Hochul’s administration sets the lowest levels possible, down to two parts per trillion, and really make New York a national leader on this issue.

That'll then kick off a public comment period so New Yorkers will be able to weigh in about whether the standards that got the governor proposals really do protect public health, and we're really looking forward to engaging in that public comment period once those comments come out.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.