EPA Seeks Lower Limit On ‘Forever Chemicals’

Beacon, Cold Spring below proposed new standard in 2021

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing its first-ever enforceable standards for a class of toxic chemicals that closed drinking water sources in Newburgh and Putnam Valley and are present in Beacon’s system. 

The proposal requires that municipalities notify the public and take steps to lower concentrations of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) exceeding 4 parts per trillion — significantly lower than the EPA’s existing advisory guideline of 70 ppt and New York state’s maximum of 10 ppt. 

Both are the most widespread polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a large group of chemicals used since the 1940s in products ranging from nonstick and stain- and water-resistant coatings to foams used by firefighters to suppress blazes caused by highly flammable liquids like jet fuel. 

Researchers have linked PFAS, which are called “forever chemicals” because they do not easily degrade, to a range of health problems, including kidney and testicular cancers, developmental delays in children, high blood pressure in pregnant women and increased cholesterol. 

The levels of PFOS in Beacon’s water supply ranged between 1.31 and 3.33 ppt, and PFOA levels were measured as high as 1.96 ppt in 2021, according to the city’s water-quality report for that year, which is posted on its website and is the most current available. 

The most recent water-quality report on Cold Spring’s website is from 2017, three years before the state adopted its standards for PFOA and PFOS and required that public water systems begin routine testing for the chemicals.

But the village’s 2021 report, provided by the Putnam County Health Department, shows its water testing positive for 1.59 ppt of PFOA in the fourth-quarter of that year; neither PFOA or PFOS were detected in any other test from 2021. As with Beacon, Cold Spring’s 2022 report is not yet available. 

PFAS levels

Riverkeeper predicted that the proposed standards, which also require that public water systems be monitored for mixtures containing one or more of four other PFAS chemicals, will spur cleanups. 

“Once in force, these new federal standards will mean many more water systems will require treatment, and many more of our neighbors will be protected from exposure to these risky forever chemicals,” said Dan Shapley, the organization’s co-director of science and patrol.

One such exposure took place in the Putnam Valley Central School District, which is suing nearly two dozen companies that manufactured products containing PFAS, including 3M and DuPont, over the contamination of the well that supplies drinking water to students, faculty and staff at its elementary school. 

School officials discovered the contamination in December 2020, when quarterly tests of the well revealed elevated concentrations as high as 23.3 ppt for PFOA and 38.3 ppt for PFOS, well above the state’s drinking-water limits.

At the time of the results, students and staff were using bottled water instead of fountains because of the pandemic. Putnam Valley’s high school and middle school are on municipal water systems and unaffected by the contamination.

The district traces the source of the contamination to the use of firefighting foams at Putnam Valley Fire Department firehouses — one 4,600 feet from the school’s property on Oscawana Lake Road and the other 4.6 miles away. 

The lawsuit is seeking punitive damages and compensation for the costs of installing a granular-activated-carbon filtration system, one of the proven methods for removing PFAS. School officials said in January that “recent test results have found no measurable amounts of PFOA or PFOS in our drinking water.” 

Firefighting foams have also been implicated in the high PFAS levels that forced the closure of the City of Newburgh’s primary water supply, Washington Lake, in 2016 after sampling showed concentrations between 140 and 170 ppt. 

State investigators traced the contamination to the use of the foams at Stewart Air National Guard Base. 

In addition to closing the lake, the state Department of Health launched a testing program for Newburgh residents. Results for the first 370 people tested showed a middle level of 16 parts per billion, three times higher than the national figure of 5.2. For current residents of Newburgh the average was even higher, about 20 parts per billion.

New York also funded the installation of a new water-filtration system, but Newburgh officials decided to continue drawing water from New York City’s Catskill Aqueduct. A five-year national study of the health effects of PFAS chemicals is underway, and includes residents from Newburgh. 

Newburgh and Putnam Valley are not the only victims. The chemicals also contaminated a well at Hudson Valley Regional Airport in Wappingers Falls, triggering a lawsuit by Dutchess County against manufacturers. They have also been found in the system supplying water to the middle and high schools in Dover. 

In March 2022 the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced the start of an investigation into pollution from the chemicals at Dutchess County’s fire training facility in Hyde Park. 

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