State Regulations for Harmful PFAS Expected in May
February 10, 2020
PROVIDENCE — Efforts are underway in Rhode Island to regulate the harmful class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Results are expected in the coming months.
These so-called forever chemicals are found in everyday products such as clothing, carpeting, and food containers and have been produced by chemical companies for decades. PFAS unique makeup repels moisture and prevents staining. It also stops the compounds from degrading in the environment. Their prevalence and health risks, however, have only become recognized in recent years.
PFAS move through water, food supplies, and people with ease. Nearly every human is believed to have some amount circulating in their blood.
The chemicals are toxic to humans in small amounts and are linked to disorders in developing fetuses and newborns. PFAS trigger growth, learning and behavioral problems, and disrupt liver, pancreatic, and thyroid function.
Calls for action have been getting louder. But with the Trump administration focused on eliminating health and environmental rules, expectations are low that the Environmental Protection Agency will write regulations. The EPA only establishes health advisories when PFAS are detected in drinking water at a level exceeding 70 parts per trillion. But no corrective response to exposure and contamination is required.
Safety and environmental advocates have urged states to step in. Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont have set safety thresholds. But Rhode Island declined to pass legislation in 2018 and 2019, as the Department of Health (DOH) and Department of Environmental Management (DEM) called for more time for national guidance and for the state to continue testing water sources and conduct its own research.
That moment may be at hand for a response. During a Feb. 6 Statehouse hearing for two bills to ban and regulate PFAS, Seema Dixit, DOH’s chief of environmental health, said a draft of the regulations will be furnished by May 15.
Dixit didn’t offer details of the safety threshold, but she promised a thorough public vetting. Other DOH staffers indicted that a threshold of 20 parts per trillion was being studied.
“We are now at a juncture of finalizing all of our analysis through sampling efforts to have a clear picture of the PFAs exposure in the state,” Dixit said.
In 2019, DOH tested every major drinking water supply in the state and the water in every school. In all, 87 percent of Rhode Islanders had their primary source of water studied.
The tests found: 44 percent of water systems had at least one PFAS compound; one water system contained PFAS greater than 70 parts per trillion; 13 water systems contained greater than 20 parts per trillion; and 9 schools and one preschool contained 4 parts per trillion.
DEM and DOH support a bill (H7307) that bans PFAS in food packaging, but wants to wait for new regulations to be adopted before endorsing a bill (H7216) to regulate PFAS in drinking water, groundwater, and surface water.
The American Chemistry Council opposed both PFAS bills. Several municipal water boards also opposed the PFAS water bill, saying that DEM and DOH are capable of addressing the problem.
The PFAS drinking water bill calls for ongoing testing if PFAS are detected and requires treatment and replacement of drinking water if levels exceed 20 parts per trillion. It also requires monitoring of the liquid effluent, called leachate, from landfills.
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