What are PFAS chemicals and what is Pennsylvania doing about them?

Members of Gov. Tom Wolf's PFAS action team hear from the public in Abington, Montgomery County on Monday, April 15. Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced it will start testing water at more than 300 locations across the state for the presence of PFAS, man-made substances found in firefighting foam and other industrial products.

It was a significant step in the state’s efforts to regulate the chemical compounds, which were first found in elevated levels in public and private water wells near military bases in Southeastern Pennsylvania in 2014.

PFAS toxins been linked to decreased fertility and immunity and an increased risk of cancer in humans, according to the CDC. Right now, though, neither the state nor the federal government regulate PFAS chemicals, and drinking water supplies don’t have to be tested for them.

Since contamination was first discovered five years ago, the commonwealth has ramped up its efforts to research PFAS and educate the public about their risks. Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018 convened a PFAS action team, which includes members of his executive cabinet.

But on Monday, when members of the administration’s action team met with the public in Montgomery County, many residents said that state and federal regulators haven’t done enough to regulate the toxic chemicals.

“I gave my sons poisoned water for 20 years and I’m mad,” Horsham resident Lisa Cellini said at the Monday meeting. “I want to know why nothing is being done about it.”

The discovery of PFAS in Pennsylvania has led to back-and-forth debate between local, state, and federal agencies, which are reluctant to individually shoulder responsibility for contamination that took root decades ago. Here’s a look at what PFAS chemicals are, and what Pennsylvania is doing to eradicate them from water and soil.

What are PFAS and where are they found?

PFAS refers to a family of more than 4,000 chemicals that were once widely used in the production of food wrappers and non-stick cookware, as well as in fire extinguisher foam and other industrial chemicals.

The U.S. Department of Defense used fire-fighting foam that contained PFAS, leading to high levels of PFAS concentrations on military sites, including the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove in Horsham Township, Montgomery County.

Today, 33 states across the country have documented PFAS contamination near military sites.

PFAS compounds don’t break down naturally and they’re able to travel from soil to drinking water. Once they accumulate in human tissue and blood, they can stay there for years.

There’s still a lot that’s unknown about PFAS chemicals and their precise harms on human health. The scientific literature on the subject is ever-growing, which regulators say makes it hard to develop standards for PFAS levels in drinking water.

Is drinking water safe?

People who live near Willow Grove and other contaminated sites can still turn on their tap and drink the water that flows from it, said state Sen. Maria Collett, whose Montgomery County district includes Horsham Township. But that doesn’t mean that they feel safe doing it.

“This base has been in their backyard for decades,” Collett said. “And for these people who grew up being proud to have a military presence in their community, only to be left holding the bag [for] cleaning up pollution that they didn’t create, it was really devastating and upsetting.”

After elevated levels of PFAS were found in wells in Southeastern Pennsylvania in 2014, local governments and water authorities were the first to respond. Officials in Horsham Township came up with a short-term action plan and instituted a “Horsham standard” for drinking water levels.

By April 2017, Horsham brought PFAS down to a non-detectable levels in its public drinking water, according to township supervisor Greg Nesbitt and township manager Bill Walker.

Meanwhile, Aqua Pennsylvania, the utility company that serves the region, took four of its wells offline and installed treatment systems in two of them. Chris Crockett, Aqua’s chief environmental officer, said the company was the first utility in Pennsylvania that started performing in-house PFAS monitoring.

But these upgrades were costly, and local officials say they need more help from state and federal regulators to pay for them. The Horsham cleanup alone cost about $1.2 million and was funded in part by ratepayer dollars.

“We need the EPA and the DEP and others to take a more involved leadership role,” Crockett said Monday. “We need military to clean up pollution at Willow Grove. [We] should not bear the cost of cleanup.”

Who’s responsible for fixing this?

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Pennsylvania departments of  Health and Environmental Protection all have roles to play in researching and regulating PFAS in Pennsylvania’s water.

But right now, nobody regulates PFAS chemicals.

The federal government has set a “health advisory level,” a non-enforceable guideline for state and local governments to use in their own monitoring.

Other states with PFAS contamination, including New Jersey, have started to impose their own standards in the absence of stronger federal regulation. Pennsylvania has adopted the EPA’s guideline of 70 parts per trillion while the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health work to develop their own statutory standard.

But there’s wide skepticism among the public that the current standard is safe. Collett, a nurse and attorney by training, said that water in Pennsylvania could still test within the EPA’s limit, but “that doesn’t mean that the drinking water that people are getting is necessarily as clean and healthy as it should and could be.”

One of the most common refrains among Horsham-area residents Monday was to ask the state to set a minimum contaminant level, or MCL, which would serve as the legal standard for the allowable amount of PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

State and federal agencies say they can’t set an MCL without more research. Pennsylvania’s Department of Health hopes to increase its research efforts this year by appropriating $1.4 million for personnel and equipment, including hiring the state’s first toxicologist.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is also in the process of hiring new staff to supplement its PFAS testing efforts, executive deputy secretary Ramez Ziadeh said Monday.

Rick Rogers, who works in an Environmental Protection Agency division that monitors drinking water, said Monday that the federal government hopes to develop a draft regulation by the end of 2019, which could take several years to implement.

People near PFAS contamination sites say that’s too long to wait. They suggested that Pennsylvania adopt an interim MCL, which would at least provide some more stringent safety standards while the state continues its PFAS research.

Collett, a nurse and attorney by training, thinks Pennsylvania’s General Assembly should enact a new PFAS standard if state agencies won’t. She plans to introduce a bill that would lower the standard significantly, to 10 parts per trillion.

How much will all of this cost?

Beyond their potential public health risks, PFAS contaminants in Pennsylvania also have economic ramifications.

Water authorities and local governments have funded their infrastructure upgrades by raising water rates on customers. Collett said that’s a hardship the large population of senior citizens in her district, many of whom live on fixed incomes.

The former military bases that are the sources of contamination also can’t be developed until someone remediates them, which deprives local governments of a significant source of tax revenue. Local officials and Collett say that federal agencies should bear the cost of cleanup. 

Collett also plans to introduce a bill that would designate PFAS as a hazardous substance under Pennsylvania’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act. That would unlock state and federal funding for municipalities that are home to PFAS-contaminated sites. 

Some local officials think Pennsylvania could cut costs by working with other states with known PFAS contamination.

“Let’s not reinvent the wheel. Let’s partner with other states which are, respectfully, already ahead of you folks,” Horsham Township manager Bill Walker told members of Wolf’s action team Monday. “We just want speed, we want urgency, we want results. More collaboration would be cheaper and more efficient with these other states.”

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