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Environmentalists Seek Lower Levels For PFAS Chemicals

 In this photo dated March 2018, Cindy Doran stands near the St. Gobain plant on the river in Hoosick Falls, site of the PFOA contamination.
Cindy Doran for Assembly
In this photo dated March 2018, Cindy Doran stands near the St. Gobain plant on the river in Hoosick Falls, site of the PFOA contamination.

Advocates for clean drinking water say proposed new limits by the New York State Health Department for PFOA and other chemicals in the water supply linked to cancer and other serious illnesses are too high, and will lead to serious health problems.

The state Health Department is recommending that the drinking water supply of any New Yorker does not contain any more than 10 parts per trillion of Perfluorooctanoic Acid or PFOA, 10 parts per trillion of Perfluorooctane Sulfonate or PFOS, and 1 part per billion of a related substance, 1,4 –dioxane.

Those sound like very small amounts, but  many of the state’s leading environmental groups say that’s still too high.

Maureen Cunningham, with Environmental Advocates, say the chemicals can be detected and treated in humans at level of 2 parts per trillion, so that should be the standard.

“Anything less is leaving millions of New York’s at risk for detectable and treatable contamination,” Cunningham said.

The public comment period ended September 23, and the environmental groups submitted testimony asking that the limits be lowered.

The groups say the state is behind in testing water supplies. Cunningham says 2.5 million New Yorkers in communities with 10,000 people or less have not yet had their water tested for PFOA and related chemicals.

Liz Moran, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says national data shows that, of the drinking water supplies that have already been tested, many  contain the toxic substances.

“Millions of New Yorkers already have these contaminants in their drinking water,” Moran said.  

Moran says the testing found that 11 million New Yorkers already have 1,4 dioxane in their drinking water, and 1.5 million have PFOA and PFOS in their water supplies.

Several state lawmakers also support lower threshold levels, including Assemblyman Phil Steck. The health department’s proposed rules  note there are economic costs to further lowering the limits, but Steck says that’s not taking into account health care costs when people get sick form the toxins.

“The time for business as usual on these issues is over,” Steck said. “This is not 1970, where we can have the concept that because  economic reasons we can have acceptable levels of materials like this in our drinking water.”

In Hoosick Falls, New York, Saint Gobain for years manufactured a substance used to make non stick Teflon. One of the byproducts is PFOA and related chemicals. Many in the town became sick with diseases linked to exposure to the chemicals, and some died of their illnesses. 

A few months after the former regional head of the EPA warned against drinking the water, the state stepped in and provided filters for homes the village and offered blood tests to residents. It is still seeking an alternative water source. A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation,  Sean Mahar, says the agency will “soon” be presenting options to the community about potential new drinking water sources.

Other communities with PFOA water contamination problems include Petersburgh and Newburgh.

The environmental groups are not the only ones asking for the limits to be lowered. They also delivered postcards, signed by thousands of members of the public, demanding stricter standards.

A spokeswoman for the state health department was noncommittal about the environmental groups’ request. Spokeswoman Erin Silk says the department will conduct a “diligent” review of all of the public comments that have been submitted. And she says it’s possible that the recommendations will be revised, based on those comments. Silk did not offer a timetable for when the final rules will be out, but says once they are, systematic testing of the state’s drinking water supplies will be completed within 90 days.

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