Addressing the PFAS threat to drinking water


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Toward the end of June, I attended an important community engagement event sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address the challenge of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in our environment. In an effort to promote a greater understanding, it is important to provide clarity on recent information released from the federal government that you may have heard in the news and share an update on our ongoing efforts.

PFAS contamination of our environment, especially our groundwater and drinking water, is an issue of growing national concern. While many other states are just becoming educated on PFAS, New Hampshire has been working with impacted communities for more than four years.

PFAS are a very large group of man-made chemicals that are prevalent in many commercial products, including stain- and water-repellent or nonstick products that we have all used at one time or another. They are also used in industrial and manufacturing processes, and certain types of fire-fighting foam. These chemicals do not break down in the environment and are persistent in the human body causing significant concerns about potential adverse health effects.

In 2016, my department established an Ambient Groundwater Quality Standard for two PFAS chemicals — Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) — based largely on a new EPA lifetime Health Advisory of 70 parts per trillion for each of the chemicals separately or in combination.

This is not a drinking water standard, but rather an enforceable cleanup standard when contaminants are found. New Hampshire is a national leader, being one of only a few states that currently have an enforceable standard in this area.

Additionally, Governor Sununu is poised to sign legislation that provides my department a toxicologist position and a human health risk assessor position that will allow us to propose state rules establishing drinking water standards (MCLs) for the following PFAS chemicals: PFOA, PFOS, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS) by Jan. 1, 2019.

To accomplish this, we will use the most up-to-date, science-based information available, including the new toxicological profiles recently released by the Agency for Toxic Substance for Disease Registry, which identify minimal risk levels for these chemicals.

It is important to note, these are not intended to be regulatory standards, but are used as a screening level that is specific to the investigation of Superfund sites to determine the need for further investigation.

A drinking water standard, on the other hand, is a specific enforceable regulatory standard for public water systems that is focused on the protection of human health for all life stages and exposure periods associated with the ingestion of contaminants in drinking water, and is developed using assumptions about other sources of exposure to the contaminant.

They also take into account practical considerations, such as the extent to which the contaminant is found in New Hampshire, the ability to detect and treat the contaminant in public water systems, and the costs and benefits to affected parties that will result from establishing the standard.

In New Hampshire, because of our proactive sampling efforts, we currently have 40 active PFAS drinking water contamination investigations and are witnessing first-hand the impact that these PFAS contaminants are having on communities and residents in the Granite State. We look forward to working closely with our community leaders, other states and our federal partners to advance this issue in the coming months and to create a clear path toward greater regulatory certainty and public health protection related to PFAS contamination.

Robert Scott is commissioner of the NH Department of Environmental Services.

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