May 28, 2023

NMED secretary: PFAS drinking water standards are a start, but not a silver bullet for addressing the contamination

Cannon AFB courtesy photo: VIRIN: 101010-F-YG475-003.JPG

PFAS chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016.

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney compared the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed drinking water standards for PFAS to chapter one in a novel.

The public comment period for the EPA’s proposed maximum contaminant level for PFAS in drinking water closes on May 30, although there have been calls for the EPA to extend the comment period.

Kenney said the EPA released a PFAS strategic roadmap in 2021, which he compared to the table of contents in a book.

“The first chapter they’re writing is the drinking water MCL,” he said.

At the same time, Kenney expressed surprise about how complex the MCL rulemaking has become.

“I never expected a chapter to become a book,” he said.

The proposal printed in the Federal Register took up more than 100 pages and invites stakeholders and the public to comment on nearly 60 separate questions. The docket includes more than 1,200 separate documents. 

According to the EPA, long term exposure to PFAS can lead to negative health effects for pregnant individuals and developing babies, weaken the immune system’s ability to fight disease, increase risk of some cancers, damage livers and lead to elevated cholesterol levels that increase risks of heart attacks or strokes.

Drinking contaminated water is one of the ways that people can be exposed to PFAS chemicals, especially near military bases where there is documented PFAS contamination of groundwater. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, often referred to as the bipartisan infrastructure package, included $9 billion for investment in drinking water systems that have been impacted by PFAS or other emerging contaminants.

While there are thousands of PFAS chemicals, the proposed standards focus only on six of them: PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFNA, PFBS, and HFPO-DA.

A study from Elsie Sunderland, an environmental chemist at Harvard University, and a team of researchers said the proposed standards do not account for a significant amount of the contamination that has occurred at military bases.

Sunderland’s team used data from Joint Base Cape Cod, a military base in Massachusetts.

They specifically looked at chemicals that can turn into PFAS chemicals. These are known as PFAS precursors. These compounds are transformed either through biological or environmental processes into what is known as terminal forms of PFAS. The six chemicals the EPA has proposed standards for are all terminal forms of PFAS.

According to a press release announcing a new paper Sunderland’s team published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, most of the precursor compounds are not monitored and none of them are currently regulated.

As the precursor chemicals transform into PFAS, it can lead to greater levels of PFAS.

The study found that levels of PFHxS and PFBS, which are among the chemicals the EPA has proposed standards for, at Joint Base Cape Cod are sustained by the transformation of precursor compounds.

“These precursors are retained in the soil where they leach into groundwater in terminal form at concentrations thousands of times greater than the safe levels established by the EPA,” the press release states.

The contamination at Joint Base Cape Cod and other military bases including four in New Mexico comes from a firefighting foam known as aqueous film forming foam which was used in training exercises on the bases. California, Colorado, New Hampshire, Illinois, New York, Maine, Kentucky, Virginia and Washington have enacted legislation banning the use of aqueous film forming foam.

The PFAS precursors in the aqueous film forming foam can be difficult to measure, Sunderland said in a press release. 

The study also found that most of the PFAS contamination is in the soil and ground above the water level. This means that further leaching could occur if remediation efforts are not undertaken. 

Kenney said the drinking water standards are not a silver bullet that will fix all the issues related to PFAS contamination, but it is a significant first step.

Kenney said another significant “chapter” in the book will come likely in August when the EPA proposes rulemaking for regulating PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. He said New Mexico has petitioned for this and has led calls to get PFAS regulated as hazardous waste

Kenney said NMED offers well water testing that can look for PFAS in drinking water that people near military bases rely upon. 

Additionally, he said the department is getting closer to being able to offer testing for levels of PFAS in blood of people living near military bases. 

Living near military bases is just one way that people can come in contact with PFAS. Household goods such as non-stick cookware and stain resistant carpets can also contain PFAS. Furniture treatments to make the furniture more water resistant can also contain PFAS. Kenney said it is important for people to be informed consumers.