Why is it taking so long to regulate toxic PFAS chemicals in Pennsylvania’s drinking water?

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(Photo via iStock)

(Photo via iStock)

Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing collaboration between Environmental Health News and PublicSource on PFAS contamination in Pennsylvania and was funded in part through the Bridge Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

Thousands of Pennsylvanians are being exposed to dangerous chemicals in their drinking water—many without knowing it—and some experts feel state agencies aren’t moving quickly enough to protect residents.

The class of chemicals, known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), includes more than 4,000 individual chemicals with similar properties. PFAS don’t readily break down once they’re in the environment or human bodies, so they can accumulate in animal and human tissues. The compounds, used in products such as stain- and water-resistant clothing, nonstick pots and pans, firefighting foam, carpets and furniture, are 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.

The chemicals are increasingly found in water supplies throughout the United States. In Pennsylvania, there are 20 known contaminated sites, including at least two in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Despite the widespread contamination and mounting evidence the chemicals are harming people’s health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has yet to set a Maximum Contaminant Level, or MCL, for the compounds. This has left states like Pennsylvania on their own to protect residents, who are waiting for action without knowing what potential exposure is doing to them or their families.

In recent years, the compounds have been increasingly studied and at least eight states either have policies in place or are pursuing policies related to PFAS, including Michigan, Alaska, California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont. New Hampshire has organized health studies with thousands of participants. New Jersey has implemented a stringent MCL for drinking water, and Michigan has implemented standards for groundwater and surface water, which empower the state to initiate cleanup efforts.

Some health experts say Pennsylvania should rely on this existing scientific groundwork to act fast in protecting residents.

“Delaying action to protect residents from harmful PFAS in drinking water until you can hire in-house researchers to reinvent the wheel on PFAS toxicity is absurd,” David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy related to environmental health, told EHN.

But state officials say they are restrained by pro-business state laws passed more than 30 years ago and a chemical class that is foreign to most of them.

‘The DEP has never independently set an MCL before’

In the absence of federal regulations, Pennsylvania’s state government formed a “PFAS Action Team” in September 2018, and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced plans to regulate the chemicals at the state level.

But the process has been slow. The state first promised to set a MCL, for two of the most dangerous and ubiquitous PFAS, PFOA and PFOS (Perfluorooctanoic acid and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), in drinking water in 2017. That promise was renewed in February, but those regulations have yet to materialize.

“The DEP has never independently set an MCL before,” Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania DEP, told EHN. Like many other states, Pennsylvania has always relied on drinking water standards set by the U.S. EPA instead.

Rementer explained that in addition to this being the agency’s first time setting an MCL, the process is more complicated in Pennsylvania than it is in many other states. Pennsylvania’s Regulatory Review Act, passed by a conservative Legislature in 1982, requires state officials seeking to pass new regulations on everything from education to the environment to evaluate the economic impacts, conduct a cost-benefit analysis, and evaluate the impacts to small businesses for any new proposed regulations—even for those aimed at keeping toxic chemicals out of drinking water.

“Pennsylvania's environmental regulatory rulemaking process established by the Legislature requires a great deal more non-health related information and analysis than [some states],” Rementer said. “The Legislature requires DEP to prepare these things and the Environmental Quality Board to consider them even where the rule is a health-based standard, like an MCL.”

On top of that, the DEP has been trying to hire a toxicologist to set an MCL since last summer, but has been unable to fill the position because, reportedly, no one wants the job. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) is trying to hire their own in-house toxicologist and also recently announced plans to spend $1.4 million hiring 10 new scientists to research the health impacts of the chemicals.

“The inability of Pennsylvania to move forward ultimately reflects a failure of the federal EPA to provide leadership on analyzing the science and setting health-protective drinking water limits,” Andrews said.

The Pennsylvania DEP is trying to speed up the process. They recently made plans to contract with a private toxicology consultant rather than hiring one full time, Rementer said. She added that the consultant will review and interpret existing scientific literature on PFOS and PFOA to help the department set a “legally defensible” MCL, but will not conduct any independent scientific research.

The DOH will consult with the DEP regarding the health impacts of PFAS when it comes to setting an MCL. And unlike the toxicologist consulting with the DEP, the DOH’s scientists will conduct original research.

“There hasn’t been a lot of research on this,” Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesperson April Hutchinson told EHN. “That’s one of the difficulties when you talk about PFAS. There need to be more major, longitudinal studies… We know people have been contaminated and we know it’s caused things like thyroid and kidney problems and high cholesterol, but further documentation of that is needed.”

Meanwhile, residents who’ve been impacted are pleading with state officials to take action more quickly based on what is already known about the chemicals.

"When is someone going to step up to the plate?" asked Hope Grosse, whose family lives near a contamination site an hour north of Philadelphia during a state hearing on PFAS contamination in November. Grosse testified that PFAS contamination was found in her family's private well and the local public system in 1996, and that she and family members have been stricken with various cancers.

"These chemicals are destroying lives," she said. "We need you to make changes today, not tomorrow."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week that it plans to study PFAS impacts on human health, but, according to a draft document, the study will not examine whether or not the chemicals are linked to cancer.

‘Good evidence, strong studies’

Some researchers feel there’s already enough scientific research on the toxicity of the most common PFAS for states like Pennsylvania to act quickly.

“We do not, in my opinion, need another scientific assessment of the health effects of PFOA and PFOS,” Jamie C. DeWitt, a PFAS researcher and associate professor at East Carolina University, told EHN, adding that when it comes to those specific chemicals, the levels established by other states can and should be used for reference. “Another assessment of the science would be a waste of resources, but [an assessment of] whether Pennsylvania can implement the treatment options to meet those levels is probably necessary.”

Rainer Lohmann, a PFAS expert and director of the Superfund Research Center at the University of Rhode Island, said that having multiple states review data and set MCLs is important because it strengthens the case for the U.S. EPA to act on the national level.

“Having said that,” he told EHN, ”there is good evidence and strong studies being published that could be quickly reviewed and used to act. So from my perspective, I'd rather have Pennsylvania adopt MCLs quickly and protect its citizens from PFAS contamination.”

“It would be ideal if Pennsylvania could use its resources to either look at all PFAS as a class, or extended the scope of any study well beyond the few PFASs that other states have looked at in the past,” Lohmann added. “Otherwise, it is somewhat a waste of resources.”

Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute with expertise in PFAS, said that while regulating PFAS as a class makes sense in some contexts—like restricting their use in firefighting foam and food packaging, as Washington state is doing—there are unique challenges when it comes to setting drinking water standards. The Silent Spring Institute is a nonprofit research organization that investigates the links between environmental chemicals and women’s health, especially breast cancer.

“There’s some logic to the idea since there are too many to tackle one at a time,” Schaider told EHN. “But it raises some challenges in terms of monitoring and enforcement. Water utilities need to be able to measure something to know if they’re in compliance, and the chemicals have different toxicities, meaning some might be harmful at lower levels than others.”

Schaider added that it might be possible to measure the total organic fluorine in water to get a sense of the total PFAS levels, but that the science is still evolving. She also acknowledged that the process of setting an MCL is complex and should be carefully considered, and suggested that states exploring regulating PFAS should look beyond drinking water at soil standards and groundwater near contaminated sites.

“There are a lot of different things a state could do,” she said. “But if it was a choice between original research and moving quickly, I would say they should rely more heavily on evaluations that have already been done in other states and put more resources toward testing water for more PFAS chemicals than just the ones on the short list.”

Several PFAS researchers and Pennsylvania state officials ultimately pointed the finger at the federal government.

“It is extremely important to acknowledge that the federal government is failing the states in this regard by not acting in its proper role to establish sound health-based drinking water standards,” Remnter, the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania DEP, told EHN.

Schaider agreed. “Some states don’t have the resources to come up with their own guidelines, or are unable to set guidelines that are stricter than federal standards,” she told EHN. “It’s led to this patchwork of drinking water standards. Ideally, there’d be one standard that protects everyone.”

The state’s next public hearing on PFAS is scheduled for April 15.

Kristina Marusic of Environmental Health News can be reached at kmarusic@ehsciences.org.

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