New York state is on track to set some of the nation’s most stringent maximum contaminant levels in drinking water for “forever chemicals” that don’t break down easily.
The state’s Public Health and Planning Council on Thursday voted to set the levels and finalized rules requiring water system monitoring for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS.
The council also made New York the first state to set levels for 1,4-dioxane, a solvent used in household cleaning, cosmetics, and personal care products, and increasingly detected in drinking water sources.
New York set its levels at 10 parts per trillion for both PFOA and PFOS, the two most well-studied chemicals in the PFAS family. They require public water systems to test for the contaminants, and clean them up if elevated levels are detected.
The vote comes after a lengthy process, which began in December 2018 and was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The regulations now go to state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, who participated in the limit-setting process. He is expected to approve them imminently.
“These new standards are some of the lowest and precedent-setting nationwide and were carefully considered over months of scientific review with stakeholder input to ensure successful implementation,” Zucker said Thursday in a statement announcing the council’s actions.
Once approved by the commissioner, the regulations will be published in the State Register. Public water systems serving 10,000 people or more will be required to start testing within 60 days. Systems serving between 3,300 and 9,999 people would have to begin within 90 days of the regulations being published, and those serving a population of less than 3,300 have six months.
States Take Action
Nearly half of all states are working to write their own guidance, regulations, or legislation to address drinking water contamination from PFAS, in lieu of a lack of enforceable federal standards.
Michigan in July passed a law setting the nation’s strictest level for PFOA at 8 parts per trillion. The legislation sets the PFOS level at 16 parts per trillion.
The federal government has set a lifetime health advisory level for the two chemicals at 70 parts per trillion.
The 3M Co. and DuPont were the original companies developing and producing PFAS, dating to the 1940s. Chemicals made with the particular PFAS that 3M, DuPont, and Chemours, a Dupont spinoff, have produced have been used by hundreds of companies such as Wolverine World Wide, Inc. and W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc. to make thousands of products, including semiconductors, sticky notes, shoes, and firefighting foam.
But some of the chemicals don’t break down easily and remain in the environment and in human bodies for a long time, earning them the name “forever chemicals.” They have been linked to certain cancers, hormone disruptions, and other medical conditions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Landmark 1,4-Dioxane Limits
New York is the first state to set a level for 1,4-dioxane, a chemical the EPA considers a likely carcinogen. The regulations allow for 1 part per billion in drinking water.
California also is looking to regulate the man-made chemical that, once washed down the drain, can seep into the groundwater and resist natural degradation.
New York’s levels were recommended by the state Drinking Water Quality Council in December 2018, and the regulations went through a public comment period.
Water systems that are proactively testing may apply for a deferral without facing a violation, if they need more time to comply.
“While the federal government continues to leave emerging contaminants like 1,4-Dioxane, PFOA and PFOS unregulated, New York is leading the way by setting new national standards that help ensure drinking water quality and safeguard New Yorker’s health from these chemicals,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said in a statement.
The state health department has been working with other state agencies to help investigate, remediate, and fund treatment of water systems that test above the limits, in anticipation of the adopted levels.
The state in 2018 announced $200 million in grants to help communities address PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane in drinking water supplies, according to the health department. The grants help minimize the fiscal impact of remediation on ratepayers.
Too Far, Or Not Far Enough?
The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, said New York’s new limits are much stricter than needed to protect people.
The council noted that the EPA established a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFAS, “well above” the new state limit, and said the animal liver effects that are the basis for the PFOA limit in New York “do not appear relevant to human exposure.”
The state’s limit for 1,4-dioxane is 50 times lower than the recommendation issued by Health Canada and the World Health Organization, according to the council.
“We will continue to work on behalf of our members to promote policies that are protective of the public health and based on the best available science,” the council said.
Environmental advocates applauded the long-awaited action, but some said the state should have gone further.
“These new drinking water protections are the direct result of tireless advocacy by community members who literally have these chemicals in their blood,” Rob Hayes, clean water associate at Environmental Advocates NY, said in a statement. “The science is clear: to protect people from cancer and other health hazards, New York must remove all PFAS from drinking water.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council also called for further action, citing thousands of toxic “forever” chemicals as posing risks to public health.
“New York is no doubt in a stronger position today than it was yesterday, but it must go even further by regulating PFAS as an entire class—not merely as individual chemicals,” the council’s New York Policy Director Rich Schrader said in a statement.
To see the latest updates on state-level PFAS regulations and legislation, check out Bloomberg Law’s PFAS State Activity Tracker here.