Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Health officials to unveil Delaware’s ‘forever chemical’ limit in coming weeks


Last year, state lawmakers unanimously passed a bill requiring the state to set health limits for at least two PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

The so-called “forever chemicals” are linked to some cancers and other serious health issues – and have been found at sites across the state.

As the new year begins, contributor Jon Hurdle reports there’s already progress being made toward settling on what these levels should be.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Jon Hurdle discuss progress to establish state health limits on PFAS chemicals.

Plans for Delaware’s first enforceable health limit for toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water are likely to be unveiled in late January or early February, the Division of Public Health said.

The agency will propose a “maximum contaminant limit” (MCL) for a range of the PFAS chemicals that have been found in water wells across the state, sometimes at levels that exceed a federal government guideline, and are higher than health limits set by other states.

The division has been working on a proposed MCL since the General Assembly last year unanimously passed a bill requiring the state to set health limits for at least two of the chemicals in drinking water amid rising concern that they are a threat to public health.

The bill gave officials nine months from the time Gov. John Carney signed the bill in October last year to recommend a health level, but a DPH official said his team is well ahead of that schedule.

Jame Mack DPH head shot cropped
Delaware Dept.of Health and Social Services
Delaware Div. of Public Health environmental health director Jamie Mack

“We expect to have a rough draft completed end of January, beginning of February,” Jamie Mack, environmental health director at the agency, told Delaware Public Media. “We will make it public as part of the stakeholder engagement process.”

Mack said DPH will likely recommend one level that covers an as-yet unspecified number of the chemicals rather than proposing individual limits, as set by some other states. “It’s more likely that we will do one MCL as a combination of all the compounds,” he said.

After discussions with stakeholders including water utilities and environmental groups, the proposal will go for public comment, and after any amendments is likely to be implemented by the end of 2022, Mack said.

The regulatory process will be aided by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, which is doing a statewide sampling survey that will be used by DPH for proposing the health limit.

The new limit will be designed to protect the public from a family of manmade chemicals that are linked to some cancers, thyroid problems, elevated cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, and other serious illnesses. Despite the health concerns, the chemicals are not yet regulated by the federal government which has issued only a non-enforceable “Health Advisory Level” of 70 parts per trillion for two of the most commonly found PFAS chemicals – PFOA and PFOS.

Still, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year published a “Road Map” for PFAS management that stepped up its efforts to clean up the chemicals and eventually set an enforceable national standard for PFOA and PFOS. And states are being given billions of dollars through the new Infrastructure Law to clean up PFAS.

If a federal standard turns out to be stricter than that adopted by Delaware, the state would adopt the EPA level but if Delaware’s standard is more protective, it could choose to keep that in place, said Mack of DPH.

“I do know it will most likely be lower than the (EPA) Health Advisory Level. I’m sure they will come out with a level that will be protective for Delawareans’ water.”
State Rep. Debra Heffernan

In the absence of federal regulation so far, some states including New Jersey have set their own limits at much lower levels than the federal guideline.

But without its own MCL until now, Delaware has followed the federal standard which many advocates for stricter regulation say is too high to fully protect public health. The chemicals have been used in consumer products including nonstick cookware since the 1940s, and even though they were phased out by major U.S. manufacturers starting in the mid-2000s, they are still used in products including some food packaging.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, and so can be found in water and soil long after their use or manufacture has ended. Scientists say the chemicals can be found in the blood of virtually every American.

State Rep. Debra Heffernan head shot
State of Delaware
State Rep. Debra Heffernan

State Rep. Debra Heffernan, (D-Brandywine Hundred), prime sponsor of Delaware’s new PFAS law, said she doesn’t know what the state’s new limit will be, and has not advocated for a specific level. But she’s confident that the proposed standard will be lower than the federal level.

“I do know it will most likely be lower than the (EPA) Health Advisory Level,” she said. “I’m sure they will come out with a level that will be protective for Delawareans’ water.”

Heffernan praised state officials for producing their recommendation ahead of schedule. “I’m very pleased at the leadership and the way they have taken it and run with it,” she said. “When the law was passed, they did not wait until it was signed. They started working on it right away.”

The latest evidence of the chemicals’ widespread presence in the environment came in a survey published in December by the U.S. Geological Survey, showing that 16 out of 30 public water wells sampled in Delaware in 2018 contained at least one type of PFAS chemical. As many as eight of the chemicals were found in a single sample.

Two of the wells exceeded the federal guidance level and some others topped the much stricter health limits set by New Jersey, which has become a national leader in regulating the chemicals.

At least six of the Delaware wells – which were tested for 18 kinds of PFAS chemicals -- exceeded the level set by New Jersey for PFOA while four topped that state’s health limit for PFOS, according to the USGS data.

Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center, has urged state officials to protect public health by adopting the New Jersey standards for PFOA and PFOS.

But he warned that some of the levels shown by the latest USGS data don’t necessarily indicate that a water source is a health risk – either because those wells have been closed or treated for PFAS since the samples were taken, or because the samples were only slightly above what New Jersey has judged to be a health risk.

Sophia Schmidt
Delaware Public Media
Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center

A PFOA level of 23 parts per trillion (ppt), as indicated for one of the USGS samples, is not far above New Jersey’s health limit of 14 parts per trillion, and so should not be taken as a threat to public health, Kauffman said, but a level of 57 ppt could be more of a concern.

“These levels are very, very low,” he said. “Five years ago, there wasn’t even a laboratory in Delaware that had the technology to do this ultra-sensitive testing.”

Late last year, New Jersey’s new PFOA limit was publicly criticized when Middlesex Water, a utility, discovered one of its water sources slightly exceeded the level, and so was required by state law to notify its customers. Still, the company continued to supply about 60,000 of its customers with water from the contaminated source, and refused to supply filters or bottled water, saying that the exceedance was not a public health emergency, and that the regulation was “extraordinarily stringent”.

But after a lawsuit from several customers, the company shut down the contaminated wells and switched its supply to sources that met the state standard.

“You want to set a very conservative MCL. Let’s slow down and require the water purveyors to do it now rather than later when it’s too late.”
Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center

In Delaware, a home-grown health limit would offer more certainty to the public and utilities, Kauffman said. “If we had a MCL, it would then require the water purveyors to inform the public in the consumer confidence report, and if the substance is detected above the MCL, the public must be notified in their water bill,” he said.

Kauffman said that setting one MCL that covers a number of PFAS chemicals is a valid approach that has been taken by some other states including Massachusetts and Vermont.

He urged DPH to propose a protective level when it issues its recommendation in coming weeks.

“You want to set a very conservative MCL,” he said. “Let’s slow down and require the water purveyors to do it now rather than later when it’s too late.”

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.