Water plants on alert with presence of ‘trace amounts’ of chemical

UNION COUNTY, NJ — A likely carcinogen has been detected in 12 New Jersey water systems at rates above the state’s guidance level, according to a list compiled by the Department of Environmental Protection, and treatment plants in Rahway and Union are among those which — at one point or another, since testing started in 2007 — have carried an oversupply of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA’s.

Not much is known about PFOA’s, or what causes them to seep into water supplies at a higher rate than usual. State officials said it’s virtually impossible to tell why the water in a Rahway treatment plant was found to have 53 parts per trillion, or ppt, of PFOA’s in 2008, above the state’s guidance level of 40 ppt, or why the Hummocks Station Plant in Union — part of the NJ American Raritan System — was found to have the same amount, when it was checked in September of 2015.

The water in the Rahway plant was found to have a reduced PFOA count of 23 when it was sampled again last year, which is well under the guidance level. But how

it got there in the first place is unclear. Some factories and industrial plants can release PFOA’s into the environment, but they’re also found in carpets, clothing and cookware, and research on PFOA’s is relatively young.

“I don’t think we really know. It doesn’t necessarily mean factories, it could mean a small operation. It’s even found in fire retardants, it’s found in Teflon cookware. We don’t have a point source for these contaminants, in most cases. But we do know it’s at very small levels,” said Larry Hajna, a press officer with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “There’s still a lot of evolving science as to how safe is safe, or what’s an appropriate level.”

PFOA’s are part of a family of perfluorinated chemicals, or PFC’s, which have been linked to cancer and developmental problems in humans.

But traces of the chemicals shouldn’t be particularly alarming, adds Hajna. At the state’s guidance level of 40 ppts, it would take a long time — and some bad luck — for anyone to contract cancer from drinking the local water supply, according to the DEP’s latest findings on PFOA’s.

“We’re looking at these really small levels of chemicals, and assessing what health impacts would be like if somebody were to drink a certain amount of water over a lifetime, and if there would be an increase of a cancer risk, or other health risks, related to drinking that water over a lifetime,” said Hajna. “If somebody were to drink water with 100 ppt in PFOA’s, which is two-and-a-half times the DEP’s guidance level, over a period of 70 years, their cancer risk would increase by one in a million.”

Using those guideline, residents in a town like Rahway aren’t likely to see any health hazards from PFOA’s. In a municipality of 30,000 people, that means someone might contract cancer from the local water supply, on average, once every several thousand years, if the water they are drinking is well above the state’s standard rate of 40 ppt. And Rahway, unlike water supplies in Orange, South Orange and Montclair, is once again under the state’s guidance level. New Jersey also has the strictest standard in the country for PFOA’s, and is even more stringent than the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has a guidance level of about 400 ppt. But the DEP doesn’t want to take any risks with how PFOA’s are handled in local water supplies, says Hajna, and is working with treatment plants across the state to reduce the traces of these chemicals in drinking water.

The topic of PFOA’s has gained national attention in recent years, in part due to a high-profile legal case involving the DuPont chemical company. In West Virginia, DuPont dumped 7,100 tons of “PFOA-laced sludge” straight into the ground, as a recent New York Times report put it, contaminating the water supply of 100,000 people and causing mutations in local livestock.

PFOA’s have also been found in 26 other states, including New Jersey, according to the New York Times report, and they’re difficult to eliminate, as the chemicals don’t biodegrade on their own. Even when PFOA’s are detected, utility companies are under no legal obligations to remove them, even in New Jersey, since the state’s guidance level isn’t enforceable or mandatory.

That’s why the DEP is trying to work with local water systems and limit the impact of PFOA’s, says Hajna. In the meantime, the DEP doesn’t recommend that residents start cooking with bottled water, or find any other substitutes: 100 ppt of PFOA’s, a rate higher than any water system in New Jersey, is still just a small trace of what people are getting in their drinking water.

“If you were to have the energy to walk to the moon, which is 240,000 miles depending on where you are on the Earth, it would be the equivalent of one foot on that journey. Or, it’s one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” said Hajna. “We’re talking about really minute, trace amounts of this chemical.”

The 12 New Jersey water systems listed in the DEP report are the Atlantic City MUA, Brick Township MUA, Garfield Water Department, Greenwich Township Water Department, Montclair Water Bureau, New Jersey American’s Raritan System, which services Union, New Jersey American’s Logan System, New Jersey American’s Pennsgrove System, Orange Water Dept., Paulsboro Water Department, Rahway Water Department, and South Orange Water Department.