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PFAS Contamination in the Lower Hudson Valley
by Gale Pisha
Eerily reminiscent of a scene from the 2019 movie Dark Waters, Rockland residents opened a letter from Suez Water New York in November informing us that levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in our drinking water exceed the New York State maximum contaminant level (MCL). We were assured, however, that drinking water at these levels “does not pose a significant health risk.”
PFOA is one member of a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroaklyl substances (PFASs). There are over 5,000 different PFASs, developed beginning in the 1940s by companies like DuPont and 3M for use in a wide variety of products including Teflon cookware, firefighting foam, electronics, food and textile production, plastic and rubber production, building and construction, stain repellents, polishes, paints and coatings.
Why Should We Be Concerned?
PFASs are persistent organic pollutants that have been detected in humans and wildlife worldwide. From epidemiological studies of industrial workers and communities exposed to high levels of these chemicals, these “Forever Chemicals” accumulate in humans and have been linked to adverse health outcomes, including thyroid disease, high cholesterol levels, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis and developmental effects on unborn children. Evidence indicates PFASs affect the immune system, reducing the effectiveness of vaccines, particularly worrisome during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some advocates say there are no safe levels of PFAS exposure.
Since the 1950s, 3M and DuPont were increasingly aware of the health impacts of these chemicals but kept the information private while they came up with more ways to use them. Even as recently as 2018, the Trump administration and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to suppress a study showing that PFASs were more dangerous than previously thought and that many of the contaminated sites are on military bases across the U.S.
How Do We Avoid Exposure?
PFOA has been shown to have a half life–meaning the time required for a quantity to reduce to half of its initial value–of 3.5-3.8 years, while other members of this class have been found to take up to 8.5 years to reduce levels by half. This assumes that direct contact with the chemicals ceases, otherwise levels in the blood increase faster than they can be eliminated. The good news is that if we can eliminate PFASs in our environment, our blood levels will eventually decrease.
Water companies have been successful in treating PFAS contaminated water sources by techniques like granular activated carbon and ion exchange filtering to remove or bind it but not destroy it. New technologies are being tested to transform or destroy the chemicals, including electrochemical oxidation. Incineration does not always break down PFASs, which is why the chemicals have been used in firefighting foam and fire-resistant coatings, and incineration can send PFASs into the air that eventually get deposited on soil and in water.
How can we reduce our personal exposure? There are 3 main ways PFASs enter our bodies: through our drinking water, through firefighting foam and industrial discharges into our air and water, and through food and food packaging. Sixteen million Americans in 33 states and Puerto Rico have polluted tap water while PFASs are present in groundwater of 38 states. While industry is replacing PFOA and other long-chain PFASs with short chain members in the family which might be less resistant to breaking down, the new compounds still appear to be toxic.
- Avoid items that say “nonstick” or “waterproof,” reduce the amount of fast food you consume, and check labels of beauty products and even dental floss for chemicals starting with “fluoro.”
- Contact the producers of brands that contain PFASs and ask them to stop using these ingredients. This will reduce the demand for their production.
- Push for stronger legislation from our federal and state governments to ban these “Forever Chemicals” and clean up polluted sites.
What is Sierra Club doing?
Sierra Club is responding on the federal, state, and local level. Nationally, the Club is advocating for the current EPA MCL for PFOA in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) to be lowered, which will force more water companies to clean up contaminated water supplies.
In NYS, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter has worked with coalition partners to:
- lower MCLs in the state (Governor Cuomo announced a new MCL of 10 ppt in July, 2020)
- ban PFASs in firefighting foam (law passed and signed in 2019)
- ban incineration of firefighting foam, which the Department of Defense had been sending to Cohoes, NY (law passed in June, 2020, signed by governor on November 23)
- ban PFASs in food packaging (passed in July, 2020, signed December 2).
In the unfortunate absence of a program to educate the public, which should have been organized by the Department of Health, Department of Environmental Conservation and Suez, Lower Hudson Group’s Rockland Sierra Club is planning a public program in response to the contamination in Rockland’s drinking water identified in the Suez letter. The date is Thursday, January 7, 2021 at 7p, but please check our website at SierraLowerHudson.org>Events for more details and for any changes as the date approaches. Westchester and Putnam members are welcome to join the virtual program, as well, since you are facing PFAS contamination near the Kensico reservoir, possibly from the Westchester Airport.
Our program will feature knowledgeable speakers including Judith Enck, former Region 2 Administrator of the EPA under the Obama Administration. We will ask questions including:
- How safe is our water to drink?
- Where is this contamination coming from? Can we stop it at the source?
- How safe is dilution, one of Suez’s possible options for treating contaminated water?
- Should Suez be required to treat water from wells in which total PFAS levels are higher than 10 ppt even if PFOA is less than 10 ppt?
As Rockland becomes the first community in the state to have PFASs identified in excess of the new MCL, what we do now to protect ourselves will help determine the way this contamination is handled in the future by Governor Cuomo, state agencies and water utilities.
This article was originally published in Sierra Club Lower Hudson Group’s newsletter, Terra Firma, the January-April 2021 issue.
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