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 (NYS) 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. At the time, USEPA’s health advisory level was 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.
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: https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/pfas_contamination/map/
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).
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 NYS Department of Environmental Conservation 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 DEC is responding to PFAS contamination in NYS 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. In a press release EPA stated, “the updated advisory levels, which are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect at this time. The lower the level of PFOA and PFOS, the lower the risk to public health.”
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 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 and Notification Levels for 23 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 were released on October 5th of 2022, which included a 60 day comment period. Click HERE to view BNW’s submitted comments.
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.
Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper engages in Surface Water PFAS Study
In the summer of 2022, BNW participated in a nationwide effort to study PFAS surface water contamination along with over 100 Waterkeeper groups coordinated by Waterkeeper Alliance.
As part of this nationwide study, BNW collected multiple water samples along Cayuga Creek located in Niagara County. Samples collected upstream of the Niagara Falls Airport and downstream of this location. This location was selected as it is a known location with PFAS groundwater contamination (https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/pfas_contamination/map/).
To date, we have sampled 12 additional sites throughout the Niagara River Watershed on the following waterways: Buffalo River, Cayuga Creek (Niagara County), Eighteenmile Creek (Erie County), Gill Creek, Niagara River, Scajaquada Creek, and Ellicott Creek. Sample sites were chosen based on review of available data of known PFAS contamination, relative locations of facilities that may be handling PFAS, and areas with suspected industrial discharges of PFAS. Sample kits and laboratory analysis were provided by Cyclopure, Inc.
To view the full Waterkeeper Alliance report visit https://waterkeeper.org/pfas
Results of samples collected from Cayuga Creek downstream of the Niagara Falls Airport revealed high levels of several types of PFAS chemicals as indicated in the figure below.
Figure 1: PFAS Compounds detected in Cayuga Creek (Niagara County) from samples collected on 6/16/2022
Results from the additional samples collected throughout the Niagara River Watershed showed the presence of PFAS at nearly every site. The types of PFAS found varied by site. However, PFOA was found in all but 2 samples ranging from 1ppt to 10.3ppt. PFOS was found in all but 4 samples ranging from 1.4ppt to 147.7ppt. The figure below provides a snapshot of data collected showing some of the PFAS compounds detected at various waterways sampled.
An interactive map of sample locations and results can be viewed utilizing this link: https://maps.waterreporter.org/GmfHE5iiseKL/
This local data gives early indications of how ubiquitous PFAS pollution has become. This data is cause for concern, not panic, and should inspire meaningful action. Learn more by reading the full Waterkeeper Alliance Report: https://waterkeeper.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Waterkeeper-Alliance-PFAS-Report-FINAL-10.14.22.pdf
We exist in a world where we accept the fact that society willingly pollutes its own drinking water. We allow thousands of chemical constituents to be put into use without adequate safeguards for human health or the environment. And when we do discover the toxicity of these products in our water and our bodies, rather than immediately collaborating on solutions, we spend years fighting things out in courts and rulemaking and competing research.
Currently no federal limits exist for PFAS releases into surface waters under the Clean Water Act. Passing federal legislation including the Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act would reduce levels of PFAS pollution from entering our nation’s waterways.
In addition, there are no federal drinking water regulations, only Health Advisory Levels for a few PFAS chemicals. Certain states have begun to regulate specific PFAS chemicals to protect drinking water, including New York State. New York has been a leader in terms of PFAS drinking regulations, but new proposed regulatory levels may not go far enough. These standards will likely govern how New York’s water is protected from PFAS for years or decades to come. 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.
The data collected in this nation-wide study demonstrate that there is a real need to control and remediate this type of pollution, carry out a comprehensive sampling and monitoring effort for regional waterways, and eliminate the production and use of these persistent and toxic substances. Government cannot solve this emerging crisis alone – there needs to be more producer responsibility and accountability.