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PFAS, PFOA, PFOS. Have you seen these acronyms lately? 

By February 3, 2022August 15th, 2022No Comments

PFAS, or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a large, diverse class of man-made chemicals. There are over 9,000 PFAS compounds, often referred to as ‘forever’ chemicals because they do not naturally break down. Used in a variety of industrial and consumer products, PFAS chemicals gained popularity because their application could make products water, stain, and heat resistant.

Exposure to chemicals have been linked to a variety of health effects including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and others. While some are exposed through their profession, think firefighters, the more common exposure to the general public is through ground water or drinking water. Some of the first locations of known PFAS contamination were near military bases, as they were frequent users of firefighting foam.

Contamination in New York State
In 2016, New York State residents in Hoosick Falls, a village of under 5,000 people northeast of Albany, received notification from the USEPA that their water was unsafe to drink because of PFOA contamination. Many members of the community were experiencing health issues, including several types of cancer. One resident tested their tap water and results came back showing a PFOA level of 540 parts per trillion. USEPA’s current health advisory levels are 70 parts per trillion. The village was home to several manufacturing facilities that utilized the PFAS chemicals. The 3 companies blamed for the contamination agreed to a $65.25 million preliminary settlement in 2021.

More communities across NYS have discovered their drinking water sources are contaminated with PFAS including Newburgh and Rockland.

In Western New York, there is known PFAS contamination at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, where some of the onsite groundwater tests revealed combined levels of PFOA and PFOS as high as 1.3 million ppt. A final report on this site was completed in 2018. Steps have been taken to cleanup this hazardous site. Read more about the actions taken here. For more information on this site’s contamination and other known PFAS contaminated sites across the US visit:  

How are these substances controlled? 

At the Federal level, the EPA is working to expand testing and regulation of PFAS substances. Updates can be found here.  

PFAS are currently not regulated under the Clean Water Act, though there is a House Bill to change that. PFAS are also not currently designated as hazardous substances, but this may change with the passing of PFAS Action Act of 2021.  

Certain PFAS are required to be tested for in public drinking water sources under the Safe Drinking Water Act through the Unregulated Contaminate Monitoring Rule (UCMR). The EPA has determined that there will be a National Primary Drinking Water Standard for PFOA and PFOS, though this will not occur till additional data is collected during 2023-2025 under the UCMR 5

Currently in NYS, 2 PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) are regulated as hazardous substances. NYS was the first state to regulate PFOA as a hazardous substance, which was in 2016. The DEC has surveyed businesses, fire departments, and other facilities across the state to determine where these substances are stored or used. This information is being used to identify investigate areas of potential PFAS contamination. In the Niagara River Watershed, there are over 300 facilities that may be handling PFAS1. Read more about how the NYSDEC is responding to PFAS contamination in New York State and regulating these substances here.  

Starting in 2023, PFAS in food packaging will be prohibited in NYS. More details about this law can be found here.  

In 2022, the EPA updated their 2016 drinking water health advisory for PFOS and PFOA from 70ppt to levels near zero.  

Current Drinking Water Testing
Currently, NYS Department of Health (DOH) regulates 2 PFAS chemicals in our public drinking water supply. PFOA and PFOS have drinking water standards or ‘Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs)’ which are set to 10 parts per trillion each for public water supplies. Learn more about this testing of public water supplies here.

In 2021, 3M, a company who started manufacturing various PFAS chemicals in the 1950s, filed a complaint against the NYS Department of Health (DOH) in an attempt to overturn the state’s recent drinking water regulations. In 2022 this case was dismissed.  

Expanded Drinking Water Testing on the Horizon

At the close of 2021, a bill was signed into law in NYS which will enact the most comprehensive drinking water testing and notification program in the nation for PFAS chemicals. In total, 23 PFAS will be addressed.  

Currently, DOH is planning to set MCLs for 4 PFAS and Notification Levels for 19 additional PFAS. Notification Levels differ from MCLs, which results in corrective action. If a notification level is exceeded, customers would need to be informed in some way about the exceedance. With a Notification Level, there is no requirement to clean up the contamination. These Notification Levels do provide important information to water consumers and are proactive tools to protect public health. The NYS Drinking Water Quality Council provided recommendations to the DOH on proposed MCLs and Notification levels for the 23 PFAS on May 2nd, 2022. Draft regulations for these new drinking water quality standards will come out this June.  

These standards will likely govern how New York’s water is protected from PFAS for years or decades to come. If the standards are set too high, many New Yorkers will not be informed about PFAS in their water, and many water utilities won’t be required to address potential contamination. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper and other water advocates across the state urge the DOH to set the lowest notification levels for PFAS contamination in our drinking water, to protect the health of all New Yorkers.  

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