With the opening of a public comment period on Feb. 26, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) took a step closer to establishing thresholds for per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water–chemicals linked to multiple health problems.
If enacted, those standards would be tighter than those in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2016 health advisory and bear relevance to the struggles of residents in Montgomery and Bucks Counties, where PFAS chemicals infiltrated groundwater supplies due to decades-long military base operations.
The proposed DEP rule would set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for two classes of PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which have the most numerous associations with damaging health conditions, including kidney cancer, developmental disorders, and high cholesterol.
PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam used at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Willow Grove (both now closed) are considered the principal source of PFAS contamination in these communities.
Hope Grosse, a co-founder of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, has lived most of her life near the bases. She drank the local water and as a child used to enjoy watching the thrice-weekly military firefighting drills, during which plumes of chemical-laden smoke drifted across into her neighborhood.
She blames the numerous health problems in her family, neighbors, and lifetime acquaintances on the prevalence of PFAS compounds in water supplies in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
“I have had a lifetime exposure to PFAS and a lot of other chemicals, and the combination of these is frightening. I had stage IV melanoma cancer, my father died of a brain tumor, and all of our animals died (prematurely). Our federal government should be handling this as an emergency,” she said.
To better understand the health effects of PFAS exposure for base area residents and personnel in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, a team of investigators is leading the Pennsylvania PFAS Multi-site Health Study, which, among other things, will evaluate the connection between disease prevalence and blood serum PFAS levels in study participants.
Enrollment began in late 2021 but is lagging for children and families who have been difficult to recruit, according to study investigator Linda Morris Brown, MPH, DrPH, an epidemiologist. Participation involves one-time blood and urine sample collection and answering a set of health questions. Individual results will be provided to participants. Brown encourages peoples who lived or worked in the area between 2005 and 2017 to sign up. The phone number is (877) 267-2890.
“There have been very few studies in communities that had distinctive exposure sources, where they have somewhat elevated exposures relative to background levels that are more typical; this is one of the sites around the country that was selected for doing this research. What it will do is address directly the question of health effects from the levels of exposure” Brown said.
The DEP draft rule would set an MCL of 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and an MCL of 18 ppt for PFOS. The EPA’s drinking water guideline, which is nonbinding, established a health advisory level of 70 ppt combined for PFOS and PFOA. The DEP’s proposed standards are very similar to ones established by the New Jersey DEP in June 2020. The Garden State has seen extensive PFAS contamination from military base activities and chemical plant production.
PFAS chemicals are carbon-chain compounds that are useful for their indestructible and non-slip qualities. They repel water and grease and resist heat degradation. Therefore, those substances are used in many industrial and consumer product applications and are present in a multitude of products, including clothing, carpeting, cooking pots and food liners. There are more than 4,700 PFAS compounds in existence.
“PFAS describes not just one chemical, but a whole array of different chemicals that have certain similar chemical structures and properties,” said David Savitz, Ph.D., an investigator with the Multi-site Health Study and a Brown University professor of epidemiology.
Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomeryville), a resident of the Willow Grove area, described the groundwater contamination as being “largely under control,” due to water filtration and other mitigation measures carried out partly with grant money he sought from the Military Installation Remediation and Infrastructure Authority (MIRIA).
“These chemicals, once they’re in the ground, they don’t stay put. They travel in the aquifer. It’s not isolated to just one community. There’s a lot of remediation that’s been underway in the surrounding communities as well,” he said.
The EPA has faced criticism for its failure so far to take a tougher stand on PFAS chemicals. In 2021, the agency moved toward establishing a national drinking water standard for PFAS and improve monitoring, testing, and data collection for the compounds.