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What's in our water?

Last week, the New York State Department of Health’s Drinking Water Quality Council announced its recommended levels of testing for PFAS levels in drinking water supplies.

In 2017, the state established the Drinking Water Quality Council as the place to examine threats to drinking water and to recommend steps to protect the public from those posed by “ emerging contaminants ” – that is, threats posed by newer chemicals and those not traditionally regulated in drinking water . The release of its long-awaited recommendations on PFAS was supposed to put New York at the forefront of drinking water protection.

According to public health advocates, it doesn’t.

PFAS, which stands for per - and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of chemicals used to make non-stick cookware, fabric waterproofing, and fire suppression foam, among other things. Yet, there is mounting scientific evidence that the substances pose a serious threat to the public health even at a near zero level .

This past summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency posted guidance on this issue. According to the EPA, PFOA and PFOS (two of the biggest members of the PFAS family) are considered to be hazardous, so much so that evidence of those chemicals in drinking water supplies or in other locations can trigger the location be considered a Superfund site. That designation is reserved for areas of toxic pollution that pose serious health risks to humans. The federal Superfund program has been on the books for decades and requires that the companies responsible for the toxic mess are on the financial hook for cleaning it up. States like New York have their own Superfund for sites that are considered hazardous but are not hazardous enough to meet the federal standard.

The EPA’s proposed designation of PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances is based on significant evidence that those chemical compounds present a substantial danger to human health. PFOA and PFOS can accumulate and persist in the human body for long periods of time and evidence from laboratory animal and human epidemiology studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and/or PFOS can cause cancer, reproductive, developmental (e.g., low birth weight), cardiovascular, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.

According to the EPA, there are hazards when exposed to these chemical compounds at the lowest levels. In other words, there is no detectable level at which exposure to these chemicals can be considered safe.

However, considering PFAS compounds to be unsafe is one thing, enforcement is another. The guidance set by the EPA does not require that drinking water supplies be cleaned up. Only that at higher levels can sites be considered to be so toxic that they qualify as Superfund sites.

The EPA is considering setting national standards for limiting exposure to PFAS, but until then, states are taking action. As of now, there are a wide range of standards being set. For example, one of the smallest allowable concentrations is 5.1 parts per trillion (California; PFOA only) and others that have no standards at all. Much of this state action occurred prior to the recent EPA announcements. It is expected that lower levels will be eventually set.

This is not some sort of academic exercise. PFAS has been found all across the nation. Here in New York, some communities have suffered from health impacts associated with exposure to PFAS.

PFAS has been identified in drinking water supplies across New York: On Long Island, in the Village of Hoosick Falls and the Town of Petersburgh ( both in Rensselaer County), and in the City of Newburgh and Town of New Windsor ( both in Orange County).   Given the widespread use of PFAS, this is likely the tip of the iceberg for New York.

It was within this rapidly changing regulatory climate that New York’s Drinking Water Quality Council made it s recommendation that set a limit for testing for 23 chemical compounds found in the PFAS family and identified in drinking water. The proposed regulations would set a maximum contaminant level for four PFAS chemicals to be 10 parts per trillion, but as mentioned earlier, the EPA has found that there is no safe level of exposure.

More rigorous testing, reporting and public notification would be required under DOH’s proposals, which now enter a 60-day public review and comment period before they can be adopted.

Moreover, PFAS is not the only toxic threat to the state’s drinking water. Due to its industrial legacy, there are other threats. For people interested in examining such threats, NYPIRG has a web-based tool to examine threats that have been reported to federal and state authorities. If you are interested, go to www.nypirg.org and click on the link for “What’s in my water.”

New York is renowned for having high quality drinking water and an abundance of fresh water.   The public has the basic expectation that when they go to turn on the tap, the water will be safe to drink. Only the strongest protections can make that happen and it start s with PFAS standards that are the most stringent in the nation.   No one wants their drinking water to be “sort of” safe.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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