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EPA official visits Wilmington to announce new and stricter PFAS health advisories, $1 billion in grants

EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox, the keynote speaker on the first day of the 3rd National PFAS Conference.
Benjamin Schachtman
EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox, the keynote speaker on the first day of the 3rd National PFAS Conference.

At the 3rd National PFAS conference in Wilmington today, a top official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new efforts to combat PFAS pollution — and much stricter health advisories for several chemicals. The announcement provoked an immediate response from Chemours, which threatened legal action. It also poses questions about testing at the highly sensitive levels involved with the new EPA guidelines.

In her keynote speech, Radhika Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, delivered big news: new and stricter health advisories covering four per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), including GenX.

Fox centered the announcement around the Cape Fear region, which has dealt with confusion, anger, and frustration for five years since the StarNews’s reporting on GenX first alerted most residents to the issue of PFAS.

Related: The Cape Fear region has seen decades of PFAS pollution, but still no meaningful regulations

“And of course, here we are, you know the Cape Fear River as a reminder of the devastation chemicals like GenX have on communities. The chemical, as you all know, has been linked to a variety of health effects from thyroid and liver diseases to decreased infant birth weight and to cancer. But the Cape Fear experience is also a powerful reminder of the importance of following the science and taking action to protect public health,” Fox said.

For years, there has been no federal guideline for GenX. Fox noted that, after over 400 peer-reviewed studies, that has changed.

“Today, based on the final peer-reviewed toxicity assessments developed by EPA scientists, we are setting final Health Advisory levels for Gen X at 10 parts per trillion [ppt],” Fox said.

That’s more than ten times stricter than the current North Carolina health department's provisional goal of 140 ppt, which was set back in 2017. Another chemical, PFBS, also received a federal health advisory for the first time, set at 2,000 ppt.

Two legacy PFAS chemicals, which already had health advisory levels, are getting stricter limits. PFOA (known as C8) and PFOS are the best understood of the family of substances known as forever chemicals – and are linked to health outcomes like cancer, liver disease, and developmental issues.

As Fox told an appreciative crowd, their advisory levels are now “near-zero” — 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS, compared to the previous level of 70 ppt for both chemicals.

For PFOA, that's just 4 quadrillionths of the total water. For comparison, that would be the equivalent of 10 minutes out of the 4.5 billion years the earth has existed.

It's important to note that the advisory levels are based on "lifetime exposure" to drinking water levels — not, for example, a single glass of water at a certain level. The advisory levels also "take into account other potential sources of exposure to these PFAS beyond drinking water (for example, food, air, consumer products, etc.), which provides an additional layer of protection," according to the EPA. (You can find the EPA’s paper on the new health advisories here).

CFPUA and testing for the new advisory levels

The new health advisories for PFOA, in particular, are notable because the current level of the chemical in Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) raw water has fluctuated between 1 and 10 ppt over the last three years, with filtered water on the lower end of the same range — that’s well below the old 70 ppt level, but well above the new EPA advisory. (CFPUA maintains its history, and useful visualizations, of testing results of a host of PFAS here.) CFPUA noted that interim measures taken since 2018 have increased the ability of the Sweeney Treatment Plant to reduce PFAS levels, including the four chemicals identified by the EPA today. Further, major upgrades to Sweeney, expected to be completed in the next few months, are expected to "reduce levels of these four PFAS compounds to at or near non-detection."

Non-detection is not the same as non-existence, and currently, CFPUA can't test at a level of accuracy necessary to establish whether the EPA health advisory levels are or aren't being met.

According to CFPUA Director of Communication Vaughn Hagerty, "the EPA-approved methods of laboratory measurement of three of these compounds have a reporting limit of 4 ppt. Those compounds are PFOS, PFOA and PFBS. The EPA-approved method for GenX has a threshold limit of 5 ppt."

CFPUA's testing is more accurate than available EPA-approved methods, Hagerty said.

"Through our contract lab, we do have access to other methods, not approved by EPA, that yield lower detection and reporting limits. For the compounds in question, those lower limits are approximately 0.2 ppt for the detection limit and 0.3 for the reporting limit, which has a slightly higher confidence of accuracy than the detection limit," he said.

Despite CFPUA's very accurate testing methods, they are still one to two orders of magnitude away from detecting the levels identified by the EPA's new advisory guidelines — .02 for PFOS and for .004 PFOA. That means CFPUA's testing would have to be 10 to 50 times more accurate to determine if the levels in raw and finished water were below the EPA's new advisory levels.

Hagerty said CFPUA would pursue more accurate testing methods — but only if they were reliable.

"Whenever practical, we would certainly seek to use available analytical methods that provide highest resolution results in which we can be reasonably confident. That last part about confidence is important, too. We and our customers need to be able to rely on the results," Hagerty said.

[Editor's note: WHQR reached out to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to ask if there are any available testing methods accurate enough to detect amounts at or around the health advisory levels announced today.

The NCDEQ noted that, in an EPA Q&A, the following statement appears as part of the answer to question #7:

"Based on current methods, the health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are below the level of both detection (determining whether or not a substance is present) and quantitation (the ability to reliably determine how much of a substance is present). This means that it is possible for PFOA or PFOS to be present in drinking water at levels that exceed health advisories even if testing indicates no level of these chemicals."]

Enforcement, response from Chemours and environmentalists

The health advisories are not enforceable limits – but they will guide state-level authorities to set standards that are enforceable – including those in the state’s consent order with PFAS manufacturer Chemours. It could, for example, qualify many more well owners to get filtered water for free from the company.

In a statement, Chemours called the EPA’s analysis of PFAS chemicals fundamentally flawed, saying it was considering litigation, among other steps, to address what it described as scientifically unsound action.

At Chemours, we support government regulation based on the best available science. While the EPA claims it followed the best available science in its nationwide health advisory on HFPODimer Acid (“HFPO-DA"), that is not the case. Nationally recognized toxicologists and other leading scientific experts across a range of disciplines have evaluated the EPA’s underlying analysis and concluded that it is fundamentally flawed. The agency disregarded relevant data and issued a health advisory contrary to the agency's own standards and this administration’s commitment to scientific integrity. Chemours uses HFPO-DA and its ammonium salt as a polymerization aid to manufacture high-performance fluoropolymers; it is not a commercial product. We are already using state-of-the-art technologies at our sites to abate emissions and remediate historical releases. We are evaluating our next steps, including potential legal action, to address the EPA’s scientifically unsound action.

The North Carolina Conservation Network, meanwhile, praised the EPA’s move in a statement:

EPA's stringent new health values for several toxic 'forever chemicals' will save lives and ensure a healthier environment for all of us. North Carolina communities are tragically familiar with this family of substances -- chemical manufacturers DuPont and Chemours infamously spent decades discharging these and other PFAS compounds into the Cape Fear River, the primary drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people. EPA's action on these four PFAS is also a reminder that this entire class of chemicals appears to be much more toxic than previously known -- it's crucial that we keep them out of our water, air, clothing and food.

Infrastructure grants to address PFAS

In addition to the new health advisories, the EPA also announced $1 billion dollars in grants from the Bipartisan Infrastructure law, to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water, specifically in small or disadvantaged communities. According to Fox, that’s the first installment of $5 billion dollars in grants to address the issue.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.