As EPA advisory dramatically lowers acceptable levels of PFAS in drinking water, Vermont officials grapple with next steps

Overgrown path near the old ChemFab building
The old ChemFab building in North Bennington in August 2019. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Last week, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory, warning that extremely low levels of certain types of PFAS can be hazardous to human health.

The chemical class, commonly found in consumer products, was discovered in dozens of public and private drinking water supplies in Vermont.

“The updated advisory levels, which are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, indicate that certain adverse health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in the water near zero and below EPA’s detection capability at this time,” the advisory said.

Although Vermont’s drinking water standard for PFAS is stricter than many other states, it allows higher levels of PFAS in water supplies than the EPA now considers safe.

Julie Moore, secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, said the state is reviewing the EPA’s advice and how best to align the state’s response with the new guidelines.

“We take this information extremely seriously and are committed to acting quickly and thoughtfully” to protect the public from exposure, Moore said.

Although the latest health advisory does not set regulatory limits for drinking water, Moore expects the EPA to release federal drinking water standards before the end of the year. State standards will either have to meet or be more stringent than these standards.

Vermont’s legal limit for five PFAS chemicals combined is 20 parts per trillion, and a previous EPA health advisory recommended keeping combined PFOA and PFOS levels below 70 parts per trillion.

The EPA’s new “interim” health advisory for PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is much smaller at 0.004 parts per trillion. For PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, the advisory level has been updated to 0.02 parts per trillion.

The agency also issued two advisories for chemicals that have been considered substitutes for PFOA and PFOS – GenX chemicals (10 parts per trillion) and PFBS (2,000 parts per trillion).

Federal and state authorities have long known that PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, are linked to adverse health effects such as thyroid problems, infertility and certain types of cancer. PFAS, which are often called “eternal chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally, are commonly found in stain-resistant and water-repellent consumer products, food packaging, and even in food itself.

“Essentially Everywhere”

Vermont’s most publicized case of PFAS contamination unfolded in Bennington beginning in 2016, when state officials discovered PFOA contamination in a 26-square-mile area, affecting approximately 8,000 residents. A now closed Teflon factory had released the chemical into the air from its smokestacks. Many nearby residents have high levels of PFOA in their blood, and some have developed cancers and even died, although it is impossible to conclusively link their illnesses to the contamination.

The case spurred state sampling efforts, which began in 2016 and expanded in 2019 following the passage of state legislation, said Ben Montross, program manager for the state. drinking water for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Although no other city in Vermont has experienced contamination like the case of Bennington, high levels of the chemicals have appeared in the state’s water bodies, landfills and drinking water sources, sometimes for unknown reasons.

PFAS is ubiquitous in the environment. When state officials collected background soil tests, they found concentrations of at least two parts per trillion — the lowest detectable amount — “essentially everywhere,” Moore said. Although they didn’t find the chemicals in many lakes and rivers, their technology may not be able to detect such small amounts.

Residents of the Northeast Kingdom and Canada have expressed concern over PFAS detections in Lake Memphremagog, a source of drinking water for 175,000 Canadians. Wastewater treatment plants that treat leachate from landfills have had high PFAS readings, and citizen groups around the state have also found PFAS in water bodies. Recently, the state asked South Hero to take a closer look at its closed landfill for PFAS after finding contamination there.

The state maintains a public database of drinking water sources with PFAS monitoring results.

Montoss said PFOA and PFOS have been detected in 81 public drinking water sources in the state. Of those, 19 detections were above the state limit of 20 parts per trillion.

When a system exceeds the state standard, it issues “do not drink” advisories to its users, and then the system must fix the problem. Typically, this means hiring an engineer to explore state-approved alternatives, such as using an alternate water source if available or treating the water for PFAS.

“There are, more or less, 60 other systems that haven’t processed PFAS yet because they haven’t exceeded the (state’s maximum contaminant level),” Montross said, though a certain level of chemicals has been detected there.

Practical Considerations

The health advisory presents the state with some challenges as officials consider how to move forward and possibly adopt new standards.

“There are toxicological models that health experts, including our own at the Department of Health, rely on to calculate these levels of health advisories, and then there are, in some ways, technical considerations, but frankly practices that layer on top of them when made into an enforceable standard,” Moore said.

Those practical considerations include the detection limit for PFAS — the most accurate labs can only detect concentrations below two parts per trillion, she said.

“Less is obviously more,” she said. “But there’s no test there that would allow us to sort of routinely go around the state to test the water supply and be able to tell people that they’re following the recommendations in that advisory. health.”

The state may also consider adjusting the method by which standards are set. Currently, the Vermont standard combines five types of PFAS linked to human health impacts – any combination of these five must not exceed 20 parts per trillion. The EPA advisory, however, takes a chemical-by-chemical approach, distinguishing between PFOA and PFOS and making specific recommendations for each.

The EPA guidelines mark its first update since 2016. So far, many have criticized the EPA for being slow to issue guidelines or investigate the issue.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that New England states…have moved forward quite aggressively in the fight against PFAS in the absence of national leadership over the past six years,” Moore said.

Meanwhile, Jon Groveman, water policy and program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said the organization is closely monitoring EPA guidelines. He wants to see the state work from the health advisory to quickly issue tougher standards.

“We don’t see how the EPA could set a level for a drinking water standard higher than that if they say that tiny level for at least these PFASs is so harmful that people shouldn’t be exposed to them, and certainly shouldn’t. I won’t drink them, he said.

Vermont has stricter standards than most other states, and it will soon be testing a PFAS treatment system for garbage leachate — the first such project in the country. Groveman said the state could do more, like regulate the entire PFAS class, rather than just five chemicals.

Montross said concerned citizens can speak with their doctors to assess their risk levels for PFAS. Children under five and women of childbearing age may be more vulnerable to harmful effects. The state tests bottled water brands for PFAS and lists the results on its website. Consumers can also contact their water suppliers to inquire about PFAS sampling results.

About $5 billion in federal funding will be distributed to states over the next few years to help address the problem, and Montross said Vermont’s sampling efforts have given officials a head start.

“We’ve taken the lead with the sampling, so we know where that money needs to go,” he said, “and we can help frame and help those systems come to the table to get the money for remediate. ”

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