Thousands of Pennsylvanians have been exposed to dangerous chemicals in their drinking water without knowing it, including people in the Pittsburgh region, but state-level regulations on the toxics remain at least two years away, according to state officials.
Pennsylvania first promised to tackle the issue in 2017, and in the meantime around 10 other states have moved forward with regulations to protect residents. While Pennsylvania officials say the process will take at least two more years, PFAS contamination is disrupting residents’ lives. Some residents of McKeesport, a town about 11 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, recently went an entire month without drinking water as a result of local contamination.
Pennsylvania residents risk ongoing exposure unless local water authorities start voluntarily filtering PFAS out of drinking water—which is unlikely because they’re often underfunded and must prioritize the testing and removal of chemicals that are already regulated.
The class of chemicals, known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), includes more than 5,000 individual chemicals with similar properties. PFAS don’t readily break down once they’re in the environment, so they can accumulate in animal and human tissues, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.”
In addition to being detected in food and takeout wrappers and boxes, PFAS are used in many kinds of nonstick and waterproof coatings and have been detected at troubling levels in drinking water supplies throughout the country. Exposure is linked to health effects including testicular and kidney cancers, decreased birth weights, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, asthma and ulcerative colitis.
Since 2016 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended a non-enforceable health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFAS in drinking water—a level scientists, several states and other federal agencies have determined is too high to adequately protect people’s health.
In California, for example, state health officials have recommended some of the most stringent PFAS goals in the country: 0.007 ppt for PFOA and 1 ppt for PFOS in drinking water (Perfluorooctanoic acid and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid respectively; two of the most harmful and ubiquitous PFAS chemicals). Because we’re exposed to PFAS from many different sources and they stay in the human body forever, many health leaders recommend removing all PFAS from drinking water, but regulators must also consider what level of filtration is achievable given budget constraints.
The EPA has promised to set stricter federal standards for PFAS in drinking water (and efforts to do so are underway), but the process has been slow. In the meantime, local municipalities face an uphill battle when it comes to controlling contamination.
“These chemicals are destroying lives,” Hope Grosse, whose family lives near a contaminated site near Philadelphia, told state officials at a public hearing in 2019. “We need you to make changes today, not tomorrow.”
A series of delays
In 2018, New Jersey became the first state to set a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for any PFAS in drinking water. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and Vermont have also adopted or proposed limits, and several other states have passed legislation to require monitoring of PFAS in public drinking water systems.
A state MCL will require more frequent monitoring of PFAS in drinking water by every water provider in the state and mandate filtration if levels exceed the legal threshold.
In June, the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board (EQB) voted to move forward with setting an MCL for PFAS including PFOA and PFOS, two of the most widespread and harmful PFAS.
But some community advocates are getting a sense of deja vu.
The June vote mirrored a similar vote taken by the board in 2017, when it accepted a petition filed by environmental advocacy group the Delaware Riverkeeper Network urging the state to set an MCL for PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid).
When no further action had been taken to create an MCL two years later, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network sued the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over the lack of action.
At the time, a DEP spokesperson told EHN the process had been slow because the chemical class was new to most state regulators, state agencies were having difficulty hiring a qualified toxicologist, and Pennsylvania has unique pro-business laws that make it difficult to quickly pass and implement new health-protective regulations.
The agency has since hired a toxicologist, who submitted recommendations for a statewide MCL in January 2021—but the COVID-19 pandemic has further delayed the process.
“It is difficult to give a timeline for implementation [of a PFAS MCL],” DEP spokesperson Jamar Thrasher told EHN, pointing to the lengthy process for enacting new regulations in Pennsylvania. “DEP staff are currently developing a draft regulation…which will eventually be presented to the Environmental Quality Board. The general timeline once a draft regulation is presented to the EQB is roughly two years, though that is subject to change.”
The lack of PFAS regulations in Pennsylvania is part of a larger problem of inadequate regulations locally, nationally and internationally, according to a paper published Tuesday in Environmental Science and Technology by University of Pittsburgh PFAS scientist Carla Ng.
“Knowledge deficits are often put forward to delay concrete measures,” stressed co-author Dr. Martin Scheringer. “But we already know enough about the harm being caused by these very persistent substances to take action to stop all non-essential uses and to limit exposure from legacy contamination.”
The state rejected recommendations the Delaware Riverkeeper Network submitted for a PFOA limit between 1 ppt and 6 ppt, saying further studies are needed. Other states that have set an MCL for PFOA are generally in the range of 5 to 15 ppt. TheDEP said it intends to set an MCL for additional PFAS chemicals, but Thrasher told EHN it has not yet determined which ones.
Meanwhile, the EPA expects to publish proposed drinking water regulations for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS), in March 2023. State-level restrictions are still important because federal regulation has been delayed numerous times and states may wish to pass more stringent regulations based on local contamination and cleanup capacity.
In July, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania rejected DEP’s request to dismiss Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s 2019 lawsuit. DEP claimed the issue is moot since they’re now moving forward with the rulemaking, but the Court pointed out that the agency’s delayed response has still not been addressed.
“The need for a protective drinking water standard that would require the removal of PFOA from our drinking water was urgent in 2017 when we filed our petition,” Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said in a statement. “It was urgent in 2019 when we went to court to press for action from DEP on the need to remove this highly toxic compound from drinking water in Pennsylvania. Inexcusably, years have passed while people continued to drink water contaminated with PFOA, endangering their health.”
Statewide testing results
After conducting statewide testing, the DEP did not find widespread PFAS contamination exceeding the EPA’s current threshold, according to a study released in June.
There were two drinking water systems that did exceed EPA standards: One at a manufacturing business in Centre County and one in Saegertown Borough in Crawford County.
The DEP only tested for certain PFAS chemicals, and only flagged locations with PFAS levels above the current EPA health advisory of 70 per parts per trillion for combined levels.
Among the states that have set their own limits for PFAS, many keep limits below 15 ppt. If one of these more stringent standards were adopted in Pennsylvania, there would be dozens more sites out of compliance.
The state also only tested around 400 sites that it believed could have contamination with the intention of estimating how widespread and severe contamination is. Private wells were not tested, and there could be other public water systems with contamination that were not tested.
Coraopolis, a small borough about 13 miles southwest of downtown Pittsburgh, showed one of the highest levels of the six kinds of PFAS during the state’s first round of sampling in 2019. At that time, the township’s water authority committed to using additional filtration to remove PFAS.
The borough is located near Pittsburgh International Airport, a location that has frequently spread one of the most common sources of PFAS contamination into the ground: aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a substance airport firefighters use to extinguish and prevent oil and gas fires.
The EPA now routinely tests for 24 different PFAS chemicals, so the DEP retested Coraopolis and more than 100 other sites a second time in 2021. This time Coraopolis’ water sample showed less than half as much PFAS contamination as it had in 2019.
Coraopolis never did introduce additional carbon filtration, a way of removing PFAS chemicals from the water, because it proved too expensive.
Two samples from the same water source can vary by as much as 30% because of a lack of precision in the testing, according to Ng, the PFAS expert at the University of Pittsburgh. So it’s not clear from the state test results if PFAS levels in Coraopolis have actually fallen.
More recently, residents of McKeesport, a town about 11 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, experienced PFAS in their drinking water after an accident involving aqueous firefighting foam.
In July, about 500 residents were instructed not to use their tap water to drink, bathe, or cook because firefighting foam may have inadvertently been injected into a fire hydrant during a local fire. Unlike some other contaminants, PFAS in tap water can’t be reduced by boiling, freezing, or using typical household filters.
Over the next several weeks the number of homes instructed not to use their tap water dwindled as officials determined the scope of the impact, but some homes in the region were without usable tap water for nearly a month. By the time the order was lifted, testing and cleanup had cost the municipal water authority hundreds of thousands of dollars.
While the do-not-use order remained in effect, community advocacy group Women for a Healthy Environment distributed ZeroWater filters, which reduce PFAS by an estimated 94.9%. The incident also prompted the organization to call for a statewide ban on aqueous firefighting foam.
“Safer, reliable alternatives exist,” Abdul Alobireed, Women For a Healthy Environment’s Environmental Health Fellow, said in a statement, “Regulatory protections must be enacted to ban the use of [these] foams and protect local drinking water sources.”
Under-funded water treatment plants
While state officials maintain that having federal restrictions on PFAS in drinking water would speed up cleanups, some municipal water authorities have lobbied against the move. Representatives from these lobbying groups have said that while they support removing PFAS from drinking water, they fear legal liability for harms caused by exposure to the chemicals will fall to them, and worry that proposed federal funding for cleanup won’t be enough to cover legal costs.
Unfortunately, PFAS contamination is just one of many expensive problems facing underfunded municipal water authorities.
John Schombert, who chairs the Coraopolis water authority board, said PFAS filtration in Coraopolis would’ve been more expensive than they initially thought, and the authority has to look at other potential contaminants, not just PFAS. The requirements are likely to get more stringent over time for a number of chemicals. Their wells are also located near a known superfund site on Neville Island, and the town is already unable to draw water from some of its wells because there are other contaminants, such as iron, that are too high to meet water quality standards.
“We are a groundwater plant, so you can anticipate that maybe there are other organic chemicals that no one is analyzing for or may show up in the future that we need to be prepared for,” he said.
The authority has put in an application for federal funding to help pay for improvements. Another option would be to start buying its water from a bigger water authority. But purchasing water can be expensive too, he said.
“Whatever choices we make it has to be for the long term,” he said. “It’s a huge investment.”
Correction (April 25, 2023): A previous version of this story misspelled Jamar Thrasher’s first name. Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward. However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us. Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.
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However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.