The Rockland County legislature and a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a virtual panel Wednesday amid concerns over the level of PFAS contamination in the county’s drinking water.
The meeting follows calls from U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and 17th district Congressman Mondaire Jones, both Democrats, for the EPA to focus on PFAS contamination in Rockland County, and help the community better understand the health and environmental risks.
Officials say more than 300,000 Rockland residents may have been exposed to elevated PFAS levels, which were discovered in late 2020. PFAS chemicals are commonly found in firefighting foams and nonstick cookware, and have been linked to certain cancers and other adverse health effects. Communities across the WAMC listening area have grappled with PFAS contamination.
Robert Hayes is the Director of Clean Water for Environmental Advocates New York. He says PFAS is more of a family of about 9,000 very persistent chemicals – only 29 of which can currently be detected.
“They can last for decades or longer in water or soil and other environmental media,” Hayes said. “And that means they can move through the food chain and expose multiple generations of humans and other organisms to contamination.”
Hayes says PFAS chemicals can also accumulate in the human body.
“They can last for years in your body after your exposed to them and the levels in your body can build up over time,” Hayes said. “The longer you’re exposed to them, the more you’re exposed to them.”
And Hayes says it affects almost every system in the human body.
“The endocrine system, the digestive system, the reproductive system – on and on and on,” Hayes said.
Hayes says there is no known safe level of PFAS exposure, and says the public health goal for PFAS maximum contaminant levels should be zero.
Over the summer, New York state adopted MCLs for three chemicals in drinking water. For PFOA and PFOS, the MCLs are 10 parts per trillion each. Rockland’s water has tested at 19 parts per trillion for PFOA. Rockland’s water system includes dozens of wells and multiple reservoirs contributing to the water supply.
Suez’s water system serves most Rockland residents. Speaking on the panel, Suez Vice President of Water Quality and Compliance Carol Walczyk said PFOA can come from a number of products.
“It’s toothpaste, it’s floss, it’s ski wax. It’s -- so many things that we use every day have PFAS in them,” Walczyk said. “They rolled out in the 1950s in these commercial products and then somewhere around in the early 2000s the manufacturers began to voluntarily phase out PFOA and PFOS. It’s a voluntary phase out. That means there’s still a lot of products out there that have PFOA and PFOS in them.”
Walczyk says New York’s standards are stricter than most states’ because it does not take a rolling annual average, but instead measures PFAS levels from one sample.
“Without that kind of balancing effect of the running annual average, it’s pretty much guaranteed that most water systems will exceed at some point because these things are everywhere and the limit is very, very low,” Walczyk said.
Suez says a new testing technology would allow the company to test for all 29 PFAS compounds, and its quarterly PFAS testing results are posted online. Suez says it’s conducting an assessment of wells and sites to see where additional treatment is needed.
There is no current national drinking water standard for PFAS. In 2015 the EPA started studying “occurrence data” – how prevalent the chemical is in soil and water. In 2016, it set a health advisory level for PFOS and PFOA at 70 parts per trillion.
Alyssa Arcaya is the acting chief of Drinking Water and Municipal in the infrastructure branch of the EPA. She manages the water of New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Arcaya says even with the levels in Rockland exceeding recommendations, it’s not necessarily unsafe.
“The EPA National PFOA and PFOS health advisory levels are currently set at a combined 70 ppt as compared to New York’s 10 ppt for each of those substances so we are better protected here in New York state than many other states in this country,” Arcaya said.
Arcaya says the state Department of Health is the authority on drinking water standards.
“Because there are currently no federal drinking water standards for PFOA or PFOS it makes sense for New York, which has its own standards, to be in the lead here,” Arcaya said. “And in fact EPA would not have the authority to enforce the state’s standards.”
Arcaya says instead the EPA is filling a national research role to increase understanding of the risks of PFAS to people and the environment – and examine how different technologies could remove PFAS from drinking water.
Panel moderator and environmental geochemist Dr. Steven Chillrund of Columbia University, asked if wastewater from sewage treatment plants upstream of well fields could be contributing to the high level of PFAS.
State Department of Environmental Conservation Chief of Staff Sean Mahar says the data doesn’t support the claim.
“We’re not seeing a direct correlation between potentials of wastewater impacts to the detections we’re seeing in the wells right now,” Mahar said. “But, obviously as we build this testing capacity and we continue to ratchet down on our oversight and authority of these compounds, that will drive the science and understanding moving forward.”
Arcaya says the EPA is working on a drinking water regulation and aims to publish a proposal for public comment by early 2023.