Acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Andrew Wheeler, who is expected to be confirmed later this month, came to Philadelphia recently to announce an “action plan” regarding Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances – known as PFAS – a plastic chemical believed to be in the drinking water of at least 16 million Americans.
While Wheeler announced that the EPA is moving forward toward regulating PFAS as a hazardous substance and setting a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) under the Safe Drinking Water Act – for the first time since 1996, he said – on one of its biggest projects ever
But residents of Philly-area suburbs where PFAS have been found in the drinking water – and where dozens of residents have shared stories of rampant illness and cancer in themselves and their family members from past decades – were less than impressed, to say the least.
“It literally meant nothing to me, it meant nothing to our community,” said Hope Grosse, of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water (representing residents on the Bucks & Montgomery counties’ border). “We did think they were going to deem PFAS hazardous waste, which they didn’t do. We know that doesn’t take nine months, it doesn’t take three months, they could do that today. But until we get it deemed toxic, we can’t even get it off the market.”
Grosse grew up across the street from the Naval Air Development Center (NADC) in Warminster, identified as a source of PFAS contamination in the local watershed, via firefighting foam used weekly for decades in fire-fighting exercises on the base. Her father died of brain cancer at 50, and she was diagnosed with stage-4 melanoma at 25, which is now in remission.
PFAS – which includes related chemicals like PFOA and GenX – are used in the creation of many products including Teflon, Gore-Tex, food packaging, cleaning products and fire-fighting foams. Associated with military bases in Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virignia to miltitary bases where fire-fighting foam was used, they have been found in the watersheds in states including Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. The toxic compound is also linked to locations of manufacturers like Saint-Gobain, Chemours, 3M and DuPont.
Under existing EPA standards, PFAS would be deemed “hazardous” after long-time exposure in drinking water if they rose above the level of 70 parts per trillion (PPT). Water tests in Warrington Township in 2014-15 found PFAS at a level of 1,600 PPT. (Warrington, along with other affected towns like Horsham, have since used local taxpayer funds to get locals clean drinking water). But scientists have found levels of even seven PPT can be a risk, associated not just with cancer but thyroid disorders and other health problems.
Wheeler’s announcement came after the EPA was blasted in the media for “not limiting” PFAS in watersheds, months after former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt promised to take action on the chemical. Some said Wheeler’s announcement was just a repeat of what Pruitt previously promised.
“It was all talk and no action,” said environmental attorney Mark Cuker, himself a resident of Upper Dublin Township, where PFAS have been found at levels of 50 PPT in the watershed. “People are still drinking this stuff.”
New Jersey passed its own drinking water limit on PFAS of 12 PPT, but in Pennsylvania, where the EPA standard is currently adhered to, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) s currently investigating setting an MCL on PFAS.
The DEP is currently working to hire a consulting toxicologist and obtain necessary lab equipment with personnel and training to perform in-house training, a spokesman said. The DEP is will finalize a PFAS sampling plan in the coming weeks and begin monitoring in late spring to identify other tainted watersheds, they added.
But for now, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, PFAS in the drinking water of up to 70 PPT will continue to go unchecked, as testing is not required.
“We were disappointed in the time table for action. It is the EPAs job to protect public health and with regards to PFAS they are failing us, said Joanne Stanton, another member of the Buxmont Coalition who grew up close to the NADC and the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base.
Stanton lived at home and drank tap water while pregnant; her son later developed a brain tumor at age 6. Two other children who were born around the same time on the same block were also later diagnosed with brain tumors, she says.
“While the federal government prepares to begin the process to establish an MCL, ground water contamination is spreading to additional municipalities not required to test for PFAS,” Stanton said. “If we are not testing for PFAS, the EPA HAL [health advisory level] of 70 ppt is not doing anything to protect public health. It simply turns a blind eye to the growing problem and potential health effects.”
A potentially massive class-action lawsuit over PFAS contamination due to firefighting foam is pending in the courts.