Recap: What’s Next for PFAS? Webinar

July 6, 2021

On June 29th, 2021 NYLCVEF hosted a virtual public forum along with Suez, a New York water service company to discuss per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). NYLCVEF President Julie Tighe began by introducing the topic of water contamination, specifically regarding PFAS. To combat contamination in NY, the Drinking Water Advisory Council lowered advisory levels to 10 parts per trillion, a limit below the EPA standards. The panel discussed the properties of PFAS, sources of PFAS, research and regulations, and remediation efforts.

If you would like to watch the webinar recording, please click here.

Dr. Peter Grevatt, the CEO of The Water Research Foundation, explained that there are around 5,000 PFAS chemicals, which are man-made compounds that have been around for many decades and are difficult to break down because of their strong carbon-bonded chains. Invented in the 1930s, PFAS uses have grown from non-stick coatings to shampoos, paints, floor polishes, stain-resistant products, and firefighting foam. Further research projects related to PFAS and contamination conducted by The Water Research Foundation include how PFAS behaves in the environment, how long they last, where they go, and how to remove them. 

Tracy Mehan, Executive Director of Government Affairs at the American Water Works Association (AWWA) introduced “legacy compounds” of which there are two, PFOA and PFOS. These compounds cause health risks when ingested and have been increasingly found in drinking water. Mehan stressed that agencies and water utilities need to know where to focus their monitoring resources to understand the risk in their source waters and where these PFAS substances have been produced and at what volumes. Additionally, he underlined the importance of the EPA to use existing tools to moderate and address PFAS. AWWA wants to see greater reliance and focus on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) which gives data gathering authority for agencies to garner more information from the manufacturing sector about the number of PFAS compounds that have been developed and at what quantities they’re produced, as well as where they’re produced. The Clean Water Act would also help strategically and proactively achieve source water protection, and AWWA has been urging EPA to deploy regulations under the Act. AWWA also suggests the EPA release a report on the location of PFAS production, import, processing, and use, and update it every two years based on data collected through the TSCA.

Sean Mahar, Chief of Staff for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, focused on Rockland County water quality and New York’s emerging contaminants response. Recent actions taken to curb contaminant levels in NYS include introducing MCLs, or maximum contaminant levels, and DEC’s launch of an investigation into potential, existing, and legacy Superfund sites and inactive landfills for PFAS chemicals. NYSDEC conducted this by researching places that PFAS compounds have been found, which include airports, military bases, fire training centers, major oil facilities, manufacturers, and landfills. They’ve been sampling groundwater to address any public exposure to contamination. So far, landfill sites tested for PFAS have not been identified as the source of drinking water contamination. Moving forward, Maher outlined additional steps of investigating other potential PFAS sites and continuing efforts to understand PFAS behavior and contamination.

Dan Shapley, co-director of Riverkeeper’s Science and Patrol Program, outlined the programs, highlighting its goal of protecting water sources, regulating other contaminants that aren’t PFAS, and utilizing varying levels of government to come about change. Shapley lamented the slow regulation rates and unregulated contaminant levels on a nationwide and statewide scale, citing a global increase in chemical use in recent years as the reason for the spike. Correlated health risks include fertility decline, auto-immune and thyroid diseases, cancer, and more. The “chemical iceberg” breaks down as follows: PFAS are only 2.5% of chemicals, only 0.3% of PFAS are testable, and only 6.5% of those are regulated. He concluded that because of PFAS persistence, toxicity, an affinity for water, and ubiquity, they should be banned from non-essential purposes and regulated strongly. The Rockland Water Coalition encourages Suez to publish their plan to treat water sources exceeding NYS standards and treat the affected water bodies and urges the Department of Health and EPA to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals and to enforce other government and non-government measures to ban non-essential uses and provide testing services. 

Carol Walczyk, Vice President of Water Quality and Compliance for the Regulated Utility Division of Suez, explained that Suez collects water samples quarterly to test for PFAS chemicals. When they are detected, more samples are tested to determine whether there were contamination issues. Walczyk echoes that they are difficult to get rid of because of their strong carbon bonds and because PFAS is found in a multitude of everyday products. There are technologies that exist to remediate PFAS, some of which are preferred by NYS, however, Suez needs to do a pilot study to make sure the technology would be effective. Walczyk mentioned that Suez services multiple states with varying maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), which makes standardizing an action plan difficult. Finally, it was emphasized that Suez works collaboratively to continue research and mitigation efforts as well as testing for and removing PFAS from currently contaminated areas. 

In the concluding Q&A session, accountability and compensation were discussed. Mahar spoke about suing production companies of firefighting foam in order to financially gain back what has been spent on PFAS testing and removal processes. Walczyk spoke about the conflicts that come about between national, state, and local governments trying to regulate contamination and alert the public of the current risk level. Additionally, she explained that the United States is a few years ahead of regulation around the world (maybe because the US has used more, but the EU recently implemented an advisory level.) Mehan also reaffirmed the concerns that regulation will be challenging because of the many different types of PFAS. Finally, panelists discussed the urgent needs of PFAS testing and research. 

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