Consider the alarming pattern that's repeating too often in recent American history: Substances like lead or human-made organic chemicals like PCBs are used widely in products close to home. At first, their danger is not clear. Then consumers suffer health and environmental consequences. Finally, sometimes many years later, the substances are banned or limited, through regulation, legal action, or buy-in from industry.
We are in the middle of such a pattern right now with PFAS chemicals.
These per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are also known as “forever chemicals,” given how long it can take for them to break down. Two in particular — PFOA and PFOS — have been produced abundantly in products as diverse as carpets, cookware, and stain- or water-resistant materials. Studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of the substances could result in testicular or kidney cancer, thyroid issues, and other adverse health effects.
The alarm bells have been ringing for a while, but this summer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally made the stakes clearer. It issued interim updated drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS indicating that negative health effects may occur with concentrations of the substances in water that are “near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect at this time,” according to an agency news release. “The lower the level of PFOA and PFOS, the lower the risk to public health.”
The groundbreaking acknowledgment, while not binding for states, shows how far we’ve come in the old pattern for these dangerous chemicals, and where the goal should be. PFOA and PFOS were widely used decades ago but have mostly been phased out of production in the U.S. Yet they remain in the environment and can endanger our health. That's why New York in 2020 took the smart step of setting a 10 parts per trillion “maximum contaminant level” for PFOA and PFOS, limiting the amount of the substances allowed in drinking water delivered by public water systems.
It was a good start, but the EPA advisory shows the importance of moving forward. The federal agency’s continued rule-making process could lead to regulation. And the state Department of Health plans to regulate 23 additional “forever chemicals” with draft regulations to be posted in the coming weeks. But lower limits for PFOA and PFOS are not expected to be among them. That would be an oversight.
There are significant practical challenges with testing for and reducing levels of PFOA and PFOS close to zero in our water supply on Long Island, where hundreds of wells have PFAS issues. Treatment can be expensive; a Granular Activated Carbon system that does the job could cost more than $1 million. And there are operating, in addition to capital, costs. But funding is available from sources like the infrastructure law signed by President Joe Biden last year. More may be needed to protect ratepayers.
New York can lead the way here, and must.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.