…but PFASs aren’t disappearing
by Dorothy Wigmore
The December 2019 and January 2020 editions of the NJEA Review featured articles about lead and PFAS chemicals in school drinking water. It’s time for an update.
Most drinking water across the U.S. will be a bit healthier soon, if the federal government has its way.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made several announcements this year as part of its 2021-24 PFAS Strategic Roadmap. Updated health advisories were followed by funding and proposed rules for reporting, monitoring and reducing the presence in drinking water of a group of up to 12,000-plus toxic chemicals. It also may change its Lead and Copper Rule to require lead-containing water service lines (LSLs) be replaced.
PFAS chemicals are getting more attention, and action
Globally, headlines are sounding alarms about poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs for short.
These poly- and perfluoroalkyl chemicals are everywhere—look for a poly or per and fluoro in the name, such as poly-tetra-fluoro-ethylene, the name for Teflon. They end up in drinking water and our bodies, through industrial waste water and common consumer products. Nicknamed “forever chemicals,“ they rarely, if ever, break down or disappear.
The chemicals are used to grease-proof or water-proof everything from food containers, cookware and carpets to dental floss, cosmetics and firefighting foam. A 2022 study found them in children’s clothes, especially cotton school uniforms.
Artificial turf—already a concern for crumb rubber infill, lead and other hazards (see sidebar)—is the latest product on the list.
Why the fuss?
PFASs in drinking water, consumer products and firefighting foam make their way into blood, breast milk and semen. The resulting harm includes cancers, pregnancy and fertility problems, and high blood pressure. Recent studies also found immune system effects, including reduced vaccine responses and possible increases in COVID-19 severity.
We still need better information about what happens if and when they’re inhaled or get on or through skin.
Worse still, while companies have long known about these hazards, they don’t have to disclose their presence, and the harm occurs at very low levels.
Then there are the costs. Using European data, a 2021 study estimated U.S. health-related costs alone are $37 to $59 billion a year—none of which the companies pay. Indirect social costs—like shortened lives, lost wages, and their effects on families and communities—have not been calculated.
The alarms are getting responses.
3M announced in December that it would stop making and using PFASs by 2025. (Like other major PFAS producers, it faces lawsuits.)
In February, five countries proposed that Europe ban all PFASs. At the same time, the European Chemicals Agency proposed a gradual ban on the chemicals in firefighting foams. They already ban or seriously restrict a few PFASs.
Closer to home, the New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute’s February report recommended following EPA’s updated guidelines, about one-third of the state’s current limits.
On March 14, the EPA put those numbers into proposed first-ever limits to some PFASs in drinking water and updated water system rules. Legal challenges are expected once it’s finalized. The EPA’s April 4 funding to upgrade drinking water infrastructure gave New Jersey $142.7 million, partly for PFASs.
It’s just a start.
“We’re running on a toxic treadmill. There are literally thousands of other PFASs that are coming at us,” Erik Olson, senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council told the Philadelphia Inquirer in March. “Until the EPA phases out the whole class, we’re going to be stuck on this treadmill, and we’re never going to get a handle on the problem.”
Lead water pipes are on their way out too
The April funds also go to replacing LSLs, complementing the state’s 2031 deadline to replace an estimated 349,357 lines.
Those lines affect schools’ drinking water. Environment America’s 2023 report about lead in school water gave the state only a B-. The reason: “fairly weak“ test and fix rules use the EPA’s 15 parts per billion (ppb) action level. Districts only have to test every three years, posting results online and taking action if they exceed the action level.
There is no safe level of lead for children, or adults.
The National Resources Defense Council wants EPA to overhaul its Lead and Copper Rule, implementing an enforceable maximum of 5 ppb lead at the tap with a “filter first, then test“ approach.
That would have a huge effect in New Jersey. In 2021-22, 3,268 state public school water outlets topped the 15 ppb mark. East Windsor Regional had 150, followed by Bridgeton City with 83, and Ewing Township at 81. Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center and the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality found 92% of Atlantic County schools had lead in at least one tap water system.
Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist and WEC consultant. She has worked in Canada, the U.S. and Mozambique, focusing on prevention and worker participation to solve job-related hazards.
Where can you find PFAS?
- Rain clothes, textiles and surface treatments.
- Nonstick coating for frying pans and posts, food packaging.
- Firefighting foams and fire protective clothing.
- Chrome plating, paints and construction materials.
What can health and safety committees do? (see Resources sidebar)
- Use the resources listed with this article to inform demands for procurement policies, find alternatives and stay up-to-date.
- Get local water provider’s test results—push for temporary fixes if they’re problematic
- Check the district’s test results and use the resources listed with this article to respond.
- Advocate for “filter first, then test“ approaches.
PFAS City of Ann Arbor
Environmentally preferable procurement
(endorsed by the Ecology Center)
Environmental Protection Agency
PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA’s Commitments to Action 2021-2024
Environmental Working Group
PFAS map of New Jersey
NJ Department of Environmental Protection
PFAS page (includes List of PFAS violations in New Jersey)
PFAS Central (Green Science Policy)
Lead Environment America
Get the Lead Out Toolkit: Ensuring Safe Drinking Water at School
National Resources Defence Council
EPA’s Chance Is Now to Finally Fix The Broken Lead & Copper Rule
“What’s in Your Water?
Part 1: Identifying Hazards,” December 2019
“What’s in Your Water? Part 2: Getting Things Fixed, Reducing Toxins,” January 2020
“Artificial Turf: Use It or Ban It?” October 2019