NJ’s rampant ‘forever chemicals’ in water will be costly to fix
TRENTON – New Jersey has higher known rates of so-called “forever chemical” contamination than the nation overall, though state officials say that’s not necessarily all bad.
The class of synthetic chemicals known as PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, cause a wide range of health problems, so the contamination isn’t good. But PFAS are everywhere, and New Jersey is among the first states adopting drinking water standards so may be more aware of an issue going undetected in other places.
Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said 76 public water systems, which serve around 733,000 people, have been found to have elevated, noncompliant levels of PFAS. That reflects the state’s manufacturing history, particularly in South Jersey, he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s bad stuff,” LaTourette said at an Assembly Environment Committee last week. “We’ve got to get it out of our water and away from our kids, out of our environment. And again, it is all over the place.”
LaTourette said that compared to the nation, PFAS levels in New Jersey are five times higher for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), two times higher for PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and 10 times higher for PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid).
'A real affordability problem'
Water systems with PFAS violations must inform the public, then have a year to come into compliance. LaTourette said the DEP has reviewed about two dozen treatment plans so far and that the others are still in design.
He said the costs for addressing PFAS in drinking water can be "prolific" and that the state has sued PFAS manufacturers because cleanup costs are otherwise shifted to the public.
“It represents a real affordability problem for residents and ratepayers who will ultimately bear the cost of what is a much-needed cure,” LaTourette said.
New Jersey American Water has had to forgo access to 20 million to 25 million gallons of groundwater per day because of its PFAS contamination, said Matthew Csik, the company’s director of water quality and environmental compliance. It will eventually treat it and be able to use it again, he said.
“We really need to keep the water flowing for our customers,” Csik said. “Losing some of that capacity has a very large impact on our own emergency planning, what we can and can’t do for our neighboring systems and what we can and can’t provide to our customers on any given day.”
Csik said groundwater has been much cheaper to treat, historically, than surface water from sources such as rivers and streams that are ever-changing. PFAS has made groundwater as expensive in some instances, he said, costing tens of millions of dollars to treat.
NJ records highest level in the world
Rob Laumbach, a physician and environmental health scientist at the Rutgers School of Public Health, said PFAS compounds can affect almost every organ system in the body, such as the immune system, reproductive system, kidneys and liver. They can also cause cancer. LaTourette said they also lead to increased cholesterol and decreased antibody response following vaccination.
Laumbach said that although some PFAS compounds have been phased out in favor of other ones believed to cause less harm, the chemicals will linger and accumulate in the body. Blood tests of Paulsboro residents found PFNA levels four times the national average.
“They had the highest level of PFNA in drinking water that’s ever been measured in the world, unfortunately, due to a local industrial source,” Laumbach said.
“Even though we’re uncertain about the health effects, even though there’s a lot more to be learned, we do know enough to act,” he said. “But we still need to learn more because these compounds are going to be with us for a long time in the future.”
More than 1,200 compounds
Eileen Murphy, vice president of government relations for New Jersey Audubon, who used to run the state Department of Environmental Protection’s science division, said there are 12,039 known PFAS at last count.
“We regulate three in New Jersey, and it took 16 years to regulate those three,” Murphy said.
“Our current regulatory approach for developing MCLs (maximum contaminant levels) in drinking water is chemical-specific, one chemical at a time,” she said. “And this is scientifically valid, but the approach is inadequate for the sheer volume of these chemicals that we’re seeing in the environment.”
Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said there are steps that can be taken, such as stopping the spreading of sewage sludge that contains PFAS on farm fields and parkland. She said the use of PFAS compounds should be mostly banned and treated as hazardous waste in its limited use.
“Even though they’ve been phased out, the major long-chain PFAS compounds, they’re still in the environment,” Carluccio said. “And they’re going to stay there basically forever.”