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Div. of Public Health unveils Delaware’s own health limits on ‘forever chemicals’

Delaware is finally getting its own health limits on so-called forever chemicals in drinking water.

The Division of Public Health last week published long-awaited proposals on enforceable limits for two kinds of the PFAS chemicals, which are linked to an array of illnesses including some cancers.

If finalized, the new regulations aim to protect public health by requiring water companies to ensure their supply does not exceed the limits for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most commonly found types of the PFAS family of chemicals.

The proposed “maximum contaminant limits” (MCLs) -- of 21 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 14 ppt for PFOS -- are in line with levels recent set by some other states, and are much stricter than a guidance level set by the federal government.

The division also set an “exceedance” level if half of the two chemicals combined exceed 17 ppt.

Water systems will be required to begin testing within six months of the regulation being finalized, and then to test annually unless the chemicals are found at above a minimum detection limit, in which case they will have to test quarterly.

Until now, Delaware has followed the non-enforceable federal level of 70 ppt which many scientists say is too lax to fully protect public health. The absence of a federal regulation, and the growing discovery of the chemicals in public water supplies, have led an increasing number of states to set their own regulations at much lower levels.

On Feb. 26, Pennsylvania published its own proposal to regulate the same two chemicals at similar levels to Delaware’s new limits. That follows health limits on three kinds of PFAS chemicals that have been formally adopted by New Jersey in the last few years.

In response to longstanding criticism of federal inaction on PFAS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, too, has stepped up its efforts to monitor for the chemicals, and has begun a process that would eventually lead to regulation, although any national standards could be years away.

“I’m really happy to see the proposal, I feel really strongly that they have done a good job, and have taken into account all the relevant information.”
State Rep. Debra Heffernan

The EPA says exposure to PFAS may lead to health problems including decreased fertility, high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental delays in children, immune-system impairment, and elevated cholesterol.

Whenever a federal limit is set, Delaware officials say they will adopt it if it’s stricter than the state standard; if not, they will stick to the home-grown version.

In Delaware, the new rules will implement HB 8, a law signed last year by Gov. John Carney, directing the Division of Public Health to propose specific limits in drinking water amid growing concern that the chemicals represent a threat to public health.

Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Brandywine Hundred), prime sponsor of the law, welcomed publication of the new limits, which she said will fully protect public health.

“I’m really happy to see the proposal,” she said in an interview with Delaware Public Media. “I feel really strongly that they have done a good job, and have taken into account all the relevant information.”

She declined to say whether the new state limits show that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance level is too high to be effective, but said that the Delaware plan is based on research by another federal unit, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, so will be protective.

Heffernan predicted that any changes to the proposed limits will be “minimal” as they go through the regulatory process. DPH said the regulations will be finalized by September or October this year, and that water suppliers will be required to take their first samples in the spring of 2023.

The costs of installing PFAS treatment systems should not be borne by water ratepayers, Heffernan said. Rather, she hopes that funds can be found from state or federal sources.

It’s not yet known whether any public water systems exceed the new limits because the Department of Natural Resources Environmental Control has not completed testing to comply with the new law.

In January, DNREC wrote to Gov. Carney and state lawmakers to say that it had so far sampled 140 systems and found only two exceeding the federal guideline. Those were at Bethany Crest, a manufactured housing community of about 50 households in Sussex County, and at Byler’s Store in West Dover.

At Bethany Crest, residents were advised last October not to drink the tap water, but the latest testing found that PFAS was treatable with a system for treating nitrates that was already in place, DNREC said. The agency also tested nearby wells but didn’t find any where PFAS exceeded the federal guidance level. In November, officials said Bethany Crest water wassafe to drink.

At Byler’s store, officials found that the water was not used for consumption even though the water source was classified as a public system.

“All in all, very good news and now forward to the hard steps to clean up and treat PFAS to protect the health of the public.”
Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center

The agency said it is investigating the sources of the two exceedances. For the overall testing plan, it is also looking at sources including landfill leachate, biosolids, and wastewater treatment plant spray irrigation, as well as groundwater and surface water.

Individual test results indicating whether any well exceeded the state’s new health limits won’t be published until sometime in the Spring, said DNREC spokeswoman Nikki Lavoie.

“The final report and plan, including the processed data, will be completed by the Spring of 2022, at which time that information will be publicly available,” she said.

Delaware’s efforts to monitor and control PFAS mirrors a growing national effort to curb the chemicals’ presence in the environment. The chemicals have been used since the 1940s for a wide of consumer products including nonstick cookware and heat-resistant fabrics. Although major U.S. manufacturers agreed in the mid-2000s to phase out PFAS, they don’t break down in soil and water, resulting in the nickname “forever chemicals”.

Because of their heat-resistant properties, PFAS have also been widely used in firefighting foam on and around military bases including Dover Air Force Base where contamination has been found at thousands of times above the EPA level in some places.

Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center, said the new state standards are a step forward that will protect the health of Delawareans.

Although the 21 ppt for PFOA is somewhat less strict than the 14 ppt adopted by New Jersey for that chemical, Kauffman said the new Delaware levels will protect public health to a higher standard than the EPA’s guidance limit.

“I think many of us in the field felt the EPA level of 70 ppt was not protective enough and hopefully EPA will soon pass a nationwide PFAS MCL that is equivalent to or more protective than the proposed Delaware standard,” he said.

“All in all, very good news and now forward to the hard steps to clean up and treat PFAS to protect the health of the public,” Kauffman said.

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.