Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

State and federal PFAS measures promise stronger protection from ‘forever chemicals’


The First State may get a better handle on any issues it has PFAS contamination in its drinking water over the next couple of years.

Delaware and the federal government are both preparing to toughen up their approach to the so-called “forever chemicals” that have been linked to cancer and other health issues.

This week, contributor Jon Hurdle takes a closer look at what their plans.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Jon Hurdle discuss PFAS regulation efforts in Delaware

Delaware residents look set for better protection from toxic “forever chemicals” in their drinking water over the next few years as state officials implement a new law on health standards, and the federal government accelerates its own process for setting long-awaited national limits on two of the most prevalent chemicals in the class.

On Oct. 18, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a wide-ranging ‘Road Map’, a three-year plan to curb the sources of PFAS, increase monitoring, clean up existing pollution, and set enforceable national limits on two kinds of PFAS chemicals – PFOA and PFOS.

Two days later, Gov. John Carney signed into law House Bill 8that directs the Department of Health and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to propose numeric health limits for those two chemicals in drinking water.

The twin-track approach to PFAS regulation offers Delawareans the best chance of avoiding the chemicals’ negative health impacts such as some cancers, thyroid problems, low birth weights and elevated cholesterol, amid growing evidence that the chemicals are widespread in homes and the environment, said DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin, Secretary.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvib
State of Delaware
DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvib

“It’s not a Delaware issue, it really is a national issue,” he said, in an interview with Delaware Public Media. “It would be advantageous for us to have one national standard. PFAS is everywhere; it’s in cushions and couches; it’s in products that package food.”

Garvin said the state standard is likely to be proposed before the federal levels, and that state officials will then evaluate the federal plan to see whether Delaware should adopt it or follow its own standard if that is stricter.

“At some point there will be a federal standard, I’m absolutely sure of that,” he said. “And then the question is analyzing it and seeing whether the federal standard is appropriate for us here in the state or if we want to be more stringent.”

In the absence so far of enforceable federal standards, the chemicals are being increasingly regulated by the states because of growing concern about their health impacts in drinking water. The man-made chemicals, formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been used since the 1940s in many consumer products including nonstick cookware, flame-retardant fabrics, and more recently, some food packaging.

The chemicals have also been used by the military in fire-fighting foam, leading to contamination of ground water on and around hundreds of bases nationwide, including Dover Air Force Base.

The chemicals have also contaminated drinking water around the New Castle Air National Guard Base, leading two nearby water companies, Artesian Water and the City of New Castle’s Municipal Services Commission, to install filters that have removed the chemicals.

Even after their manufacture or use ends, they persist in the environment because they do not biodegrade, earning the title “forever chemicals.”

At present, Delaware follows the EPA’s non-enforceable “health advisory limit” of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. Many advocates for stricter regulation say the federal standard is too lax to properly protect public health, and that argument has been adopted by some states that have adopted much tougher limits.

New Jersey, a national leader in regulating PFAS, is now enforcing limits of 14 ppt and 13 ppt for PFOA and PFOS, respectively, and has regulated one other chemical in the PFAS family in the last five years.

At the federal level, the EPA says it will propose enforceable limits for PFOA and PFOS by the fall of 2022, and finalize them a year later. In another part of its new program, it has already issued a toxicity assessment for chemicals known as “GenX” which are among the unregulated replacements for PFAS that are increasingly subject to regulation. Advocates for stronger regulation say the substitutes may be just as toxic as those they are designed to replace.

The federal plan also aims to significantly expand the number of drinking water systems where it tests for PFAS.

In Delaware, some 200 sites have been identified as possible sources of PFAS, according to a new report from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit, which used EPA data on industrial facilities that “may be handling” the chemicals. The Delaware sites were among more than 120,000 nationwide to be identified.

Delaware businesses in the PEER report includeDelaware Waste Management in Georgetown and Modular Carpet Recycling in New Castle.

Neither of those sites recorded any EPA violations but appeared in the EPA’s database as potential makers, users or shippers of PFAS materials because of the nature of the businesses, the agency said.

While some of the sites were included in the database because they have been identified by states or other entities as PFAS sources, others appear simply because the business they are in generally uses the chemicals, said Timothy Carroll, an EPA spokesman.

“Such facilities may be handling PFAS because of their industrial categorization, but EPA does not have specific evidence of potential contamination for many of these facilities,” he said.

DNREC said that without more information, it’s impossible to gauge the accuracy of the PEER report.

“There is no doubt that PFAS substances were present at many sites in Delaware, but in the absence of registration or regulation, the PEER map may show many sites listed where PFAS was not present,” said DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti. “PEER makes clear in its news release that it is based on an assessment of generic property use categories that may have included PFAS, but without any confirmatory data. Some of the listed Delaware sites likely had it and some likely did not.”

Sophia Schmidt
Delaware Public Media
Dr. Jerry Kauffman of the UD Water Resources Center

Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center, said the number of actual PFAS sites in Delaware is likely to be less than the total listed in the PEER report but that should not stop state and federal authorities setting tough limits in line with those adopted by New Jersey and some other states.

“The EPA and states like Delaware one day very soon should adopt under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act a maximum contaminant level as stringent as New Jersey … to protect public health and safety and provide industry the numerical certainty they have asked for to address this water pollution problem that exists in every state and territory,” he said.

Kauffman said he will be pressing Delaware officials to adopt the same PFOA and PFOS standards as New Jersey because it has a similar legacy of industrial pollution and a similar experience with PFAS pollution from military bases as the First State.

“That would flag the systems that don’t meet the standard, and it would mean that public health is protected,” he said.

The process of setting limits is now in the hands of DNREC and the Department of Health, which have nine months from the signing of HB 8 to propose maximum contaminant limits for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

But the proposals are likely to be published sooner than legally required because the agencies were already working on the issue when Gov. Carney signed the bill on Oct. 20, said state Rep. Debra Heffernan, (D-Brandywine Hundred), prime sponsor of the bill, which was unanimously approved by both houses of the Legislature.

“It will probably be much sooner than that than that,” Heffernan said, referring to the nine-month deadline.

If state officials adopt MCLs that are lower than whatever is eventually proposed by the federal government, the state standard would become the operative level, she said.

In one result of the state’s work towards setting MCLs, a statewide survey discovered a high PFAS level in the water supplying about 50 homes in the Bethany Crest section of Millville in Sussex County. On Oct. 23, the Division of Public Health advised residents there to use bottled water for drinking and cooking after DNREC officials found PFAS chemicals “near or at” the EPA’s advisory level.

Delaware’s senior U.S. Senator, Tom Carper (D), welcomed the EPA plan as a clear step toward curbing PFAS after years of inaction at the federal level.

“I’m encouraged that EPA is giving this urgent public health threat the attention and seriousness it deserves,” he said. “This is truly a soup-to-nuts plan—one that commits to cleaning up PFAS in our environment while also putting protections in place to prevent more of these forever chemicals from finding their way into our lives.”

Roman Battaglia contributed reporting.

Stay Connected
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.