Editor’s note: The author, Terri Thal, MPA, is a member of the Rockland Water Coalition, West Branch Conservation Association, and Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow. This article represents the author’s views and not those of Nyack News and Views.
They’re found all over the world. They’re called “Forever Chemicals” because they don’t naturally fully break down, and they accumulate in the environment, humans, and animals. They’re highly toxic (over lifetime exposure). And they are in Rockland’s drinking water.
Technically speaking, forever chemical are known as PFAS, which is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They can be found in consumer products as well as in the water of thousands of communities, including here in southern Rockland.
There are more than 10,000 PFAS chemicals, and they have been linked to adverse health outcomes including kidney and testicular cancer, liver disease, thyroid problems, decreased fertility, decreased birth weight, and more. They can also reduce the ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections and to respond to vaccines.
EPA takes action on PFAS
Recently, after years of inaction on PFAS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a study that found that there is no safe level of lifetime exposure to PFOA or PFOS, two of the PFAS substances found in drinking water; and that another, called GenX, also is highly toxic.
The EPA’s study supports public health experts who have been saying for years that PFAS chemicals are unsafe at any level. The EPA has proposed designating two regulations for PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), as “hazardous substances” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund Act.
In New York State, the NYS Department of Health currently regulates only two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, (the same two chemicals the EPA wants to designate “hazardous substances”) with drinking water standards that require cleanup if the chemicals exceed drinking water standards set by that agency.
The current NYS standard for those PFAS is 10 parts per trillion, which is hundreds of times more than the levels EPA recently found to be safe. They should be reduced to the lowest detectable level.
In early October 2022, the NYS Department of Health proposed setting limits of 10 parts per trillion for four of the 23 additional PFAS chemicals. It proposed setting the levels that would trigger public notification for the 19 other PFAS, and it proposed a limit of 30 parts per trillion for a combination of the four newly-regulated PFAS chemicals with PFOA and PFOS. At that point, action would be mandated to remove the chemicals.
Advocates push for “close to zero”
A coalition of environmental and community groups, led by Environmental Advocates NY, finds those limits too high, citing the EPA’s recent findings that even low levels of the class of chemicals are dangerous. They urge Governor Hochul to direct the NYS Department of Health to lower the standards for PFAS in New York State’s drinking water to “as close to zero as possible.”
The Rockland Water Coalition, which is working with public officials and public health advocates to eliminate PFAS from both drinking water and consumer products, believes that ultimately, PFAS must be regulated as a class, not individually; but right now, it recognizes the importance of setting the lowest standards possible for all of the PFAS for which NYS Department of Health is required to take action.
Rockland and Nyack working on remedies
In Rockland County, multiple PFAS chemicals have been found in nearly every one of the wells from which Veolia Water NY (formerly Suez Water NY) draws water, and in Nyack Water Department’s drinking water. Veolia has pulled some contaminated wells offline and has started cleanup, but the company reports that completion is likely to be delayed until the fall of 2023 because of supply chain limitations and delays in approvals. Nyack Water Department reports that its treatment plant is being upgraded to include a system that will remove PFOA; the Rockland County Department of Health is allowing the Nyack Water Department to accomplish this by August 2023.
Nyack Water Department previously identified the presence of PFOA in its water. Now, it has notified its customers that PFOS has been found, too. It states that the amount of PFOS “in your drinking water (is) at less than the MCL of 10 ppt. The MCL is set well below levels known or estimated to cause health effects and below the EPA’s Health Advisory Level of 70 ppt. Consuming drinking water with PFOA at or somewhat above the MCL does not pose a significant health risk. Your water continues to be acceptable for all uses.”
The water department’s statement, however, does not reflect the EPA’s most recent public statements. In June of 2022, the EPA issued an updated health advisory which set levels of 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS. These levels replace the health advisory levels of 70 ppt. It notes that “The interim health advisories are intended to provide information to states and public water systems until the PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation takes effect.”
A few other questions that also need to be addressed:
Should we be using bottled water?
The impact of PFAS is cumulative; we ingest the chemicals through so many consumer products that it’s difficult to single out one to avoid. And, in June 2021, Consumer Reports wrote that a study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found PFAS in 39 of the more than 100 bottled waters they tested. There were fewer PFAS in bottled water labeled “purified,” which has been treated through techniques such as reverse osmosis, than in spring water.
What about private wells?
Private well owners have been left out of the NYS regulations. Neither NYS nor county departments of health have to notify them about possible PFAS in their water. If they want to have their wells tested, they must pay for it themselves–and it’s expensive. They have been offered no information on remediation. I’ll write more on this later.
What can we do about it?
If you’re concerned about PFAS in Rockland’s drinking water, write to or call Governor Hochul, asking her to immediately publish draft regulations establishing new drinking water standards at the lowest detectable levels for all toxic PFAS chemicals. Call 1-518-474-8390 and listen to the many prompts, or send an email to https://www.governor.ny.gov/content/governor-contact-form.