HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. — A recommendation for a lowest-in-the-nation 10 parts per trillion standard for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water was praised by residents who've experienced the effects of contamination of village water supplies from the industrial pollutants.
However, the proposal from the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council was also seen as merely a first step in the regulatory process for substances that have emerged as a serious, widespread threat to water supplies over the past dozen years.
The council's recommendation at a meeting Tuesday will go before the state Department of Health for possible implementation. That decision will follow a 60-day public comment period.
"That is a good step," said Loreen Hackett, of Hoosick Falls, a clean drinking water advocate who maintains the pfoaprojectny Twitter site. "Apparently they heard us citizens who have been speaking up."
But Hackett and others questioned whether the water standard will have to be lowered again, as some studies of the contaminants have recommended even lower levels for drinking water. She noted that the two man-made substances, PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), are part of an industrial chemical group known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which numbers more than 4,000 substances.
There are now replacements in use for the discontinued PFOA, called GenX chemicals, "which could be worse," Hackett said, adding that some residents of the village have had that substance detected in their blood as well as PFOA or PFOS.
PFOA was associated through a large-scale study in the Midwest with high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Although no exact level of PFOA in the blood has been associated with certain diseases, the chemical remains in the blood for many years, with levels reducing slowly, and long-term medical monitoring is recommended.
PFOA was widely used in the production of Teflon beginning in the late 1940s and in many industrial processes, including coating of fiberglass fabrics and to create non-stick cooking products. PFOS was used in firefighting foam, such as at military or commercial airports, and in consumer products with Scotchgard or other coatings.
Once in surface or groundwater supplies, the chemicals are highly soluble, and it is believed they may not dissipate for several hundred years. Often, the substances were spread from factory exhaust stacks and worked into soil and groundwater, contaminating wells, such as the municipal system in Hoosick Falls and hundreds of private village wells.
Hackett said it would make more sense to address all of the PFAS substances as a class for regulation, contending, "Right now, we're whack-a-moling it."
"The recommendation to move to 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS is a very good move that will help protect public health," said Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and for the region that includes New York, who now teaches at Bennington College's Center for the Advancement of Public Action.
"There is science that supports a lower [standard] number, which the health departments in New York and Vermont should take a close look at," Enck said. "The question now is how long will it take New York to promulgate the new numbers. They should get it done by Earth Day, April 22, 2019."
Hoosick Falls Mayor Rob Allen fired out several Twitter comments during and after the Drinking Water Quality Council meeting Tuesday.
He said that PFOA and PFOS are only two of the PFAS chemicals "in a family of literally thousands. That would be 2 full strides while running a 5K [race]. We have to address the family of chemicals if we are going to make any serious preventative and regulatory headway."
But Allen also said, "This is a HUGE deal. It may have taken longer than pretty much everyone wanted, but it's here."
He could not be reached Wednesday for further comment.
Robert Hayes, clean water associate for Environmental Advocates of New York, commented in a release, "Just yesterday, Governor [Andrew] Cuomo said that New York must stand up, do the science and regulate chemicals to safeguard our water. While these recommendations are a very good start, we encourage the Department of Health to follow the principles articulated by the governor yesterday and adopt [maximum levels] in line with the latest science."
In addition, Hayes said, the Department of Health "should immediately begin statewide testing of drinking water to keep communities safe. Industry polluters have long dumped their chemicals into our environment, with countless families in Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh, Newburgh and elsewhere paying the price by drinking toxic water for decades."
He added that the state "has taken the first solid step toward rectifying the damage; these impacted residents can take solace in the fact that thanks to their tireless advocacy, all New Yorkers will have strong safeguards against contamination."
And an attorney representing area residents in lawsuits against companies related to PFAS contamination praised the council for proposing new lower PFOA and PFOS levels for drinking water.
"The [council's] decision to strengthen regulations for toxic chemicals in community water systems is a critical first step towards ensuring that New Yorkers have access to safe, clean drinking water," said James Bilsborrow, an environmental and consumer protection attorney with Weitz & Luxenberg, a law firm representing residents of Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh in lawsuits.
"While we wish the [council] would have recommended even lower maximum containment levels for PFOA and PFOS, we are pleased that the council has finally addressed this public health crisis, and we encourage [the health commissioner] to enact the recommendations immediately," Bilsborrow said.
In a joint announcement, the New York State departments of Health and Environmental Conservation said in part, "In the absence of federal leadership, the [council] was enacted as part of the [fiscal] 2018 budget to identify strategies to protect the quality of New York's drinking water. The 12-member council is chaired by New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and includes state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and 10 other individuals appointed for their expertise in water system operations, risk assessment, toxicology, microbiology, and environmental engineering."
Zucker was quoted in the release as saying, "After careful consideration and collaboration with drinking water quality experts and water system operators, this council has recommended the nation's most protective maximum contaminant levels for unregulated contaminants in drinking water. I thank the council membership for their recommendation and hard work in reaching this conclusion."
If the 10 parts per trillion maximum for drinking water is adopted, that would the nation's lowest standard. New Jersey is at 14 parts per trillion and Vermont set a 20 parts per trillion standard after PFOA contamination of hundreds of wells in Bennington was discovered in early 2016 — tests undertaken after the earlier contamination discoveries in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh.
In October, Cuomo also announced $200 million in grant funding to help communities address PFOA, PFOS, and a third contaminant, 1,4-dioxane in drinking water supplies.
According to the release, the funding will provide support and assistance for communities to combat these emerging contaminants. Of the grant funding, $185 million is available to communities across the state to upgrade drinking water treatment systems to combat emerging contaminants, prioritizing PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane.
The remaining $15 million has been awarded to communities pursuing system upgrades and innovative pilot technologies to treat these contaminants.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien