Half of wells tested exceed limits for ‘forever chemicals’

JON HURDLE, CONTRIBUTING WRITER | MARCH 28, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

Almost half of the private water wells tested by New Jersey officials over the past few years contained toxic “forever chemicals” at levels that exceeded state health limits, according to new data from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Over the past four years, the DEP tested 678 wells in 15 counties. It found 320 wells where water samples did not meet standards for three kinds of the PFAS chemicals now regulated by the state, according to data obtained by NJ Spotlight News.

The data includes previously released test results for the Pennington/Hopewell area. But the tests cover many other areas that were not specified before, showing the widespread nature of the contamination and highlighting what officials say is a threat to public health.

Rockaway Township in Morris County had the largest number of wells exceeding state limits for the chemicals PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) or PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid). Of the 70 wells tested, 54 were contaminated.

Buena Vista Township in Atlantic County had 37 “exceedances” out of 72 wells sampled. In North Haledon Township, Passaic County, all 29 wells sampled were out of compliance. Water systems in another eight towns in eight counties were due to be sampled.

NJ’s battle against forever chemicals

The testing program is the latest stage of New Jersey’s attempts to curb a class of chemicals linked to an array of serious health conditions, including some cancers, immune-system impairment, low birth weights and elevated cholesterol. The state has set some of the nation’s strictest standards for PFAS in drinking water, and in 2018 became the first to regulate the chemical PFNA.

The new data should be a wake-up call to private well owners to get their water tested, said Tracy Carluccio, a longtime campaigner for PFAS regulation at the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“Over and over, it proves true that unless you sample, you don’t know if you have PFAS in your drinking water, and no one can assume their water is safe simply because they are not near a known source of contamination,” she said. “It is showing up in many unexpected places.”

Of the wells that exceeded the health limits, a number are likely to have been brought into compliance since they were tested, the DEP said, without being more specific.

Testing sites include a hospital, drug company, salvage yard, and several military bases—including the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and the Naval Weapons Station Earle.

The DEP said the list consists of “individual private wells that are being impacted or potentially impacted by PFAS.” It did not provide results for specific wells, and said testing is continuing.

The data provides the latest evidence of the pervasive nature of PFAS contamination in New Jersey, which has a higher incidence of the manmade chemicals than many other states because of its long industrial history and, until recently, lax regulation.

Private and public problems

It shows that private wells as well as public water systems are vulnerable to the chemicals but does not identify possible sources.

In January, the agency said 74 utilities supplied water that exceeded the health limits when they were tested. They are given a year to correct the contamination and must inform regulators and the public of their work toward that goal. But while they are working to bring their water into compliance, they are not required to supply alternative sources such as bottled water.

The DEP has said that small exceedances don’t necessarily indicate an acute threat to public health but indicate a possible hazard based on long-term consumption. After Middlesex Water announced last fall that one of its well fields slightly exceeded the state’s PFOA limit, the DEP said such cases are not likely to have immediate health effects, unlike cases of bacterial contamination such as E. coli.

For private wells, the DEP said it is working with property owners to install filters that remove the chemicals before they enter a home. It advised residents with noncompliant wells to switch to bottled water and to seek reimbursement from the state’s Spill Fund for the cost of installing filters. Private wells provide about 13% of the state’s drinking-water, the DEP says.

Given the inclusion of several military bases on the list, Carluccio urged the Defense Department to test for PFAS, in light of many instances around the country of heavy PFAS contamination from the long-term military use of firefighting foam containing the chemicals.

Many possible sources

Other possible sources include sewage-treatment plants, sewage sludge spread on farms and parklands, leachate from landfills and fires that were put out with foam containing the chemicals, Carluccio said. Even though the contamination may have occurred years ago, it remains because PFAS chemicals don’t break down in the environment, earning the nickname “forever chemicals.”

The chemicals may also have come from industrial companies such as Solvay, a Gloucester County chemical company that was sued in 2020 by the DEP for allegedly leaking PFAS into the environment. Solvay and four others were targeted in 2019 by a still-unresolved “directive” in which the DEP ordered them to test, treat and remove the chemicals from around their facilities.

Dr. Robert Laumbach, a Rutgers University professor of public health, said the new data shows the widespread nature of PFAS contamination in New Jersey. But he warned against concluding that private wells are contaminated statewide at the same rate as those in the latest tests because the new data covers wells that were tested when contamination was found nearby.

Laumbach, who is leading a study at Paulsboro, Gloucester County on the effects of PFAS on public health, said a clearer picture of private wells will emerge with new PFAS-testing requirements during real estate transactions that became effective last December as part of the Private Well Testing Act.

“As data accrues from the newly required testing for PFOS, PFOA and PFNA … we will get a better idea of occurrence across the state and in particular areas,” he said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-03-28 02:50:09 -0700