Sign warning of contaminated water

Upstate New Yorkers continue to struggle with the impacts of PFAS contamination in drinking water. 

In Hoosick Falls, N.Y., state officials are still searching for a new water source for the village. In 2016, toxic chemical compounds, known as PFAS, were detected in the drinking water at levels well above health advisory limits.

In Petersburgh, N.Y., Emily Marpe continues to wonder whether exposure to PFAS at levels 30 times higher than the current federal standard was responsible for her thyroid disease or the lump in her daughter’s breast.

A 2018 survey of 443 former and current residents of Bennington, Hoosick Falls and Petersburg, NY — towns that recently discovered PFAS contamination in drinking water — found 31 instances of kidney cancer, 71 cases of ulcerative colitis, 231 residents with thyroid diseases and 35 cases of pregnancy-induced hypertension. Bennington College researchers said the frequency of some diseases warranted “renewed attention.”

Speaking on the House floor last night in support of a bill regulating PFAS, Rep. Antonio Delgado, a Democrat who represents upstate New York and is a founding member of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, said these communities are facing “unthinkable consequences” as a result of polluted water. 

The House agreed, passing the PFAS Action Act today with near-unanimous support from Democrats and 24 Republicans. It would establish an enforceable federal minimum standard about how much PFAS can safely be included in substances, among other things.

A growing body of evidence supports a link between exposure to PFAS and adverse health effects, including hormone disruption, high cholesterol, autoimmune disorders, and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

PFAS, an acronym for perfluoroalkyl substances, are water, heat, and stain-resistant compounds used in consumer products and industrial activities. While toxic, PFAS are ubiquitous, readily found in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant upholstery, and firefighting foam.

Because they persist in the human body and environment for decades or longer, some refer to PFAS as “forever chemicals.” Like lead, the body absorbs PFAS but does not get rid of them, meaning repeated exposure leads to accumulation. And over time, the body can accumulate PFAS at toxic levels.

The question for regulators is what level of exposure, if any, is safe?

Delgado, a founding member of Congress’ bipartisan PFAS Task Force, urged the EPA earlier this year to set maximum contaminant levels for PFAS chemicals and to enact measures addressing water contamination in upstate New York and across the country.

The current EPA health advisory level, which is a voluntary guideline for water system operators and government officials, is 70 parts per trillion. Preliminary government research suggests that the threshold is not sufficient to protect public health.

Instead of setting enforceable maximum contaminant levels, as Delgado and many other lawmakers had hoped, the EPA released an “action plan” that punted a decision on issuing new guidance until the end of the year. In response, House Democrats made PFAS regulation a top priority. 

The bill includes Delgado’s PFAS Transparency Act, which would make it illegal for an industrial facility to introduce PFAS into a sewage treatment system without first disclosing information about that substance.

“Right now, companies can tap tap into a public wastewater infrastructure and introduce PFAS into our sewage systems regardless of the local treatment plant’s ability to effectively treat the contamination,” Delgado said.

Because most municipal water treatment plants are not equipped to treat for PFAS contamination, he said, indirect discharges are hazardous, particularly when not disclosed.

“The PFAS Transparency Act establishes a commonsense requirement that industrial facilities disclose this information to treatment systems beforehand,” Delgado said.

The bill’s fate in the Senate is unclear. Some Republicans like Sen. John Barrasso have said it has no prospects in the upper chamber. However, his position may be overly negative, considering 24 House Republicans voted with Democrats to pass the bill.

Some states are done waiting for the federal government to act and are currently enacting limits well below the federal standard for drinking water and groundwater. Michigan, for example, is proposing a drinking water standard that is approximately seven times lower than what federal regulators currently deem as safe. Massachusetts is accepting comments on a limit that is less than half what federal regulators advise for six PFAS compounds. Other states, like New Jersey, Vermont, and Illinois, have already implemented or are considering PFAS groundwater standards significantly below the federal standard.