Pennsylvania Takes Steps to Limit Dangerous ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water

After learning a decade ago that their water supplies were contaminated, Pennsylvania residents may finally see action to clean up the unregulated “forever chemicals” in their water that are associated with birth defects, reproductive issues, weakened immune systems and cancer.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has proposed a draft rule on PFAS standards for Pennsylvania’s nearly 3,000 public water systems.

What Are PFAS Chemicals? 

PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment or the human body. Experts say that contaminated drinking water is a major source of exposure, along with tainted seafood, microwave popcorn, takeout foods served in grease-resistant containers and carpet.

They are found in firefighting foams and are widely used by the military to suppress flammable liquid fires. PFAS are also used in consumer products such as pizza boxes, fast food containers, nonstick cookware, cleaning products, water-resistant clothing, and stain-resistant coatings on carpets and other fabrics. PFAS have been used in the manufacturing industry since the 1940s for their ability to resist heat, water, stains and grease.

The most commonly found PFAS chemicals in Pennsylvania are PFOS and PFOA. The most frequently named PFOS and PFOA polluter is the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), which operated military bases that, for years, used firefighting foams containing the substances.

In recent years, the DOD has spent millions of dollars providing filters and clean water in affected Pennsylvania communities, but it has pledged only to fund remediation down to a contaminant level of 70 parts per trillion. A lack of drinking water standards has been the biggest obstacle in getting more from the federal government.

Why Protection from “Forever Chemicals”?

Scientists think the chemicals may harm pregnant women and their developing babies by affecting their gene regulators and hormones that control two of the body’s most critical functions: metabolism and immunity. PFAS can also alter levels of both mothers’ and babies’ thyroid hormones, which oversee brain development, growth and metabolism, and also play a role in immunity, according to a New York Times report.

According to the article, women exposed to PFAS during pregnancy have higher risks of gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia. Their babies are more likely to undergo abnormal growth in utero, leading to low birth weight, and they later face an increased risk of childhood obesity and infections.

PFAS Limits for Drinking Water

The federal infrastructure bill signed in November by President Biden includes $1.8 billion that can be used to help clean up PFAS over the next five years. The Environmental Protection Agency is working on its own PFAS standards, but it could be 2023 before they are proposed.

Under the Pennsylvania proposal, PFOA would be limited to 14 parts per trillion and PFOS would be kept to 18 ppt. That’s much lower than the federal health recommendation of 70 ppt.

Lisa Daniels, director of the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water, told WITF StateImpact Pennsylvania that DEP expects the rule will cost water systems more than $121 million a year for treatment and monitoring.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania officials have warned residents not to eat fish caught in the Neshaminy Creek, a 40-mile-long tributary to the Delaware River due to “concerning” levels of PFOS contamination. The Delaware River Basin provides drinking water to more than 17 million people in five states.

The Pennsylvania rule has been years in the making. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network petitioned the Environmental Quality Board in 2017 to set a limit on PFOA in the Delaware River.

“Pennsylvania residents, workers, and visitors have been exposed to this highly toxic compound for additional periods of time due to DEP’s regulatory inaction and delays, increasing their risk of developing adverse health effects linked to PFOA,” the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said. The group petitioned for a PFOA limit between 1-6 ppt.

How We Help Victims of Toxic Exposure

The attorneys of our birth defects victims alliance understand the pain that families face when coping with life-altering birth defects—and the frustration of knowing they could have been prevented. Our team has over 30 years of combined experience in birth defects litigation in cases involving toxic exposure. We have the resources and experience to fight on behalf of our clients against corporations who put them in danger. Contact us to see how we can help you and your family receive justice for birth defects.