Department of Health seeks $1.4 million to study chemical contaminants in water

    Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Health (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

    If you’re a toxicologist, chemist or epidemiologist looking for a job, Pennsylvania wants to hear from you.

    The state Department of Health plans to hire a team of 10 research scientists this year to study the effects of toxic PFAS chemicals that contaminate soil and drinking water, its secretary said in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday.

    They’re setting aside $1.4 million in their 2019-2020 budget for new hires and lab equipment, according to Health  Secretary Rachel Levine. The agency’s total proposed appropriation for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is $927 million.

    Levine told the committee Wednesday that there’s much more work to be done to understand the effects of toxic, man-made PFAS chemicals that have contaminated soil and drinking water across Pennsylvania, particularly in areas close to military bases.

    The existence of PFAS chemicals in Pennsylvania has long been known, but the scientific community still doesn’t know exactly what level of PFAS is safe in human blood, Levine said.

    PFAS contamination could affect human fertility and immune systems, Levine said, but a dearth of research makes it hard for doctors and public health officials to determine a patient’s risk.

    PFAS chemicals were once used in food wrappers and non-stick cookware, as well as in fire extinguisher foam and other industrial chemicals, agency spokeswoman April Hutcheson said.

    They’re not used in the United States today, according to StateImpact PA. But they also don’t break down naturally, and many humans have trace amounts of PFAS in their blood.

    The new Health Department researchers will support the work of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is is responsible for regulating PFAS levels in municipal water. Their research will help the EPA establish a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL), which will be the basis of any new regulations.

    In addition to the ten new hires they’re anticipating in the next year, the Health Department is currently trying to hire its first toxicologist since Gov. Tom Wolf took office in 2015, Hutcheson said.

    The search for a toxicologist has gone on for a year, Hutcheson said. The masters and PhD-level scientists are in high demand across the country, and public sector agencies struggle to compete with private sector employers who can offer higher pay.

    That was the case for one candidate who turned down a job offer from the Health Department to take a role with a pharmaceutical company instead, Hutcheson said.

    A toxicologist uses biological and chemical research methods to study the effects of poisons and toxic chemicals on the human body. They work closely with epidemiologists, who perform field work to determine how diseases spread among populations and in communities.

    The Health Department has already participated in a pilot program with the national Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to study PFAS exposure near the Willow Grove Military Base in Horsham, Pa.

    Through that program, scientists were able to identify how certain factors influenced PFAS blood levels, such as how close someone lived to a military base and how long they worked on it.

    They also learned that PFAS levels are higher in men than in women, Hutchison said, since women excrete more toxins through menstruation and other waste cycles.

    The Health Department  plans to use the same methodology ATSDR employed at Willow Grove to continue its own work across Pennsylvania.

    Clean water activists say that efforts to research and regulate PFAS contamination in Pennsylvania are long overdue.

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