PFAS in New Jersey Waters
Raritan River Basin
Raritan River Basin
Dr. Sandra Goodrow
Science/Research/Environmental Health at NJ Department of Environmental Protection
Dr. Keith Cooper
School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University; Chair of NJ Drinking Water Quality Institute
All aerial images © Alison M. Jones, courtesy of LightHawk.org. All rights reserved.
Since 2008, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, this conference demonstrating its commitment to a healthy Raritan River, as it runs through its Rutgers New Brunswick campuses. The following 10th Sustainable Raritan River Conference’s Opening Remarks establish the raison d’etre of this “town-and-gown” synergy between academics, scientists, students and local communities. Water quality is a prominent concern to all these stakeholders, especially as it impacts the health of all residents of New Jersey. This Sustainable Raritan Initiative Conference, conceived by NWNL advisor Judy Shaw and hosted by Rutgers, is a great example of scientist-steward coordination for the benefit of all.
Micro to Macro: The Future of the Raritan was the title for this 2018 conference. The morning included “Lightning Talks” on the micro issues of emerging contaminants affecting water quality and on the macro concerns facing watershed and water quality managers. The afternoon included a “Data Blitz” on Raritan River Basin watershed planning, stormwater management, public access, river restoration and more. Conference networking was facilitated by an onsite lunch, poster session and concluding reception.
Editor’s Note, 2019: The urgency of Dr Goodrow’s topic continues to be critical. By 2019, estimates were that 1 in 3 Americans drinks water polluted by toxic PFAS; but thus far, none of the nearly 5,000 types of PFAS are regulated. The ongoing, decades-long fight against the cover-up of PFAS is documented in the 2019 film Dark Waters.
The most widespread and common PFAS include:
SOURCES: NCDC Blog (Nov. 2018)
Earth Justice Factsheet (Jan. 2019)
Silent Springs Institute’s “PFAS-RWACH” (part of a multi-site, federal study on the effects of PFAS in our drinking water on human health.)
KEITH COOPER I have worked for many years with Dr. Goodrow at the Drinking Water Quality Institute, where we are always looking out for new contaminants. She, and other scientists I work with, study unidentified compounds and chemicals of concern. With the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey Department of Health, and the US Geological Survey [USGS], we seek to identify all contaminants in our drinking water.
This work has now come to fruition. Together, all these organizations have set exemplary MCLs (Maximum Contaminant Levels) for New Jersey. California actually is considered #1 regarding MCLs; and New Jersey is arguably #2. Actually, we’re normally ahead of California – it’s just that they seem to move a little quicker than we do sometimes.
SANDRA GOODROW Hello! I’m a research scientist at the Division of Science, Research and Environmental Health in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection [DEP]. New Jersey is kind of unique in that it has a science division in its DEP. Not many states do. We have research scientists able to identify issues around surface water quality, drinking water quality, and whatever other issues there are that could help New Jersey. We have the ability to work with academics to do whatever is needed to bring knowledge forward that benefits the State of New Jersey.
Today, I’ll give an overview of the per- and polyfluorinated substances in New Jersey. Then I’ll review some of the other working contaminants that we’re looking at that concern us. As I discuss per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, I’ll combine them into a group called “PFAS.”
What are these manmade chemicals? They’re very useful. They’ve been in commercial and industrial use for over 60 years. We started making them probably in the 1950s. Their chemical structure is a long carbon chain. Their characteristics will change, depending on the length of the chain. The shorter chains may more easily pass through carbon filtration. They may be more soluble rather than be absorbed by organic material. But when you get to the longer chains, you may find that their bioaccumulation factors are stronger.
The chemical structure of PFAS is quite important. The functional chain on the end determines how they’re used. These PFAS have the great, important properties of being water and oil repellant. On the other hand, they’re very water-soluble because of the two competing ends of the chain. One end is hydrophilic and one is hydrophobic. Plus, they’re chemically and thermally nonreactive. Thus, they’re used as a processing aid in the production of fluoropolymer plastics. They’re used to make your Teflon.
PFAS, however, are not only in your Teflon. They are also used to make:
PFAS enter the environment via industrial use. But the industries are not using proper pollution controls. Industry sends them into the atmosphere through their stacks, and into our water resources through their discharges. We also find PFAS emanating from firefighting training areas, military bases and airports that use aqueous, film-forming foam, particularly where they do firefighting training. Waste-water treatment plants and the application of bio-solvents also help large amounts of these compounds travel into the environment.
And again, remember about PFAS in your grease-proof food packaging!
In 2006, New Jersey first started seeing reported occurrences of PFAS in our drinking water. So, we started a statewide Occurrence Study in 2006; and we started another in 2009. We biased the locations of our sampling sites to locations where we believed we would find them. We also got data from the US EPA on its regulated contaminant monitoring rule. The EPA gives us loads of data on emerging contaminants. We use all data, whether it’s from the EPA or from water purveyors with huge databases. New Jersey has the most extensive data of occurrence of PFAS of most, or of all, other states.
Every five years, the US EPA comes up with the chemicals they’re going to look for. They ask us, as stakeholders, how we analyze our data, since there’s a lot of it. For instance, public water systems that serve over 10,000 people have to monitor their finished drinking water for up to 30 compounds. So, at the end we have an extensive dataset that gives us some idea of how New Jersey compares to the rest of the nation in unregulated contaminants.
In studying PFNA (a 9-carbon chain), we found it in particularly high levels for New Jersey. When compared to the rest of the nation, the presence of this compound is of particular concern to New Jersey. We have located it in a specific area.
Also, we found PFOA (an 8-carbon chain) was higher in New Jersey than nationally. All over New Jersey it’s found in levels over the detection limit – and detection limits that apply to these compounds are very high. Thus, we had to spread the work of this collection process out over many, many labs. However, the labs said, “Well, we can only detect PFOS over when 40 nanograms per liter.” For New Jersey, that is really high. We look for a much lower detection limit, so our dataset is a bit qualified by those labs’ limitations. We know there’s detection above the limit, but there are numbers below that limit that we need, as they are also very important to New Jersey, especially due to the toxicity involved.
The New Jersey DEP did two studies after we first found PFOA present in 2006. We simply looked at 23 public water systems and found only two compounds in those sites: PFOA and PFOS, the 8-chain carbons and sulfonic acid. We found PFOA in 65% of those sites and PFOS in 30% of those sites. Our detection limit was about four nanograms per liter. In the 2010 study (four years later) we expanded our compound list to ten compounds and looked at 31 different sites. We found about the same percentage of detections. We began to see somewhat of a fingerprint for the different sites.
The PFOS and the PFHXS we found were basically compounds in film-forming foam where there was a lot of firefighting training. We can kind of track back what might be the source in those areas.
PFNA is not a very common compound around the world. It’s only found in a couple of places. New Jersey happens to have a manufacturer that uses a large amount of PFNA – or used to use a large amount of PFNA. We found up to 96 nanograms per liter, which was higher than reported in drinking water anywhere else in the world. But we’ve identified the source, at least at this site. And we’ve identified some other PFNA source sites.
Basically, these long-chain recalcitrant compounds are being phased out. EPA started noticing the toxicity of these compounds in 2002, and worked with the eight top manufacturers to remove them from manufacturing process. So, they said, “Sure, we’ll make something else.”
But because PFAS are extremely persistent, we continue to find them in our environment. Many manufacturing facilities are making other compounds that are quite similar. So right now, we’re finding that we may be looking at some of their replacement compounds in the environment. Again, we’ll have a problem if the manufacturers’ pollution controls aren’t good.
We can find PFAS miles away from their source. We find them in the soil. They’re very water-soluble, and that allows precipitation to carry them into the groundwater, where they become a problem for drinking water. A lot of the manufacturers of these compounds aren’t telling us the structure of their PFAS. When we don’t have good standards for them, we have to find them in unidentified scans and figure out what they are. That’s what we’re very interested in right now.
To give you an idea of what else we’re studying, another compound we found that was a particular problem for the state of New Jersey is a stabilizer for chlorinated solvents, for paint strippers, greases, and waxes. It’s found a lot in contaminated sites where we already have solvents. Unfortunately, the solvent stabilizers are not removed from the water with the same methods we use to remove solvents. So, in some cases, we put these additional contaminants right back into the ground. We have to be more cognizant of this new drinking water issue. Its level of toxicity is a definite concern.
We also have some pharmaceutical and endocrine-disrupting studies going on. One study to be completed soon is the Division of Science’s survey of New Jersey fish tissue sediment in surface water. You can uptake these toxic compounds in your drinking water, and also in fish you catch in New Jersey’s water if they are accumulating pharmaceuticals or endocrine disrupters. That study should be out within the next few weeks.
We’re also working with the USGS on an endocrine-disruption study focused on sites all over the state. We’re studying over 100 fish to see what might be impacting them. We’ve completed some studies of pharmaceuticals in wastewater by delineating different areas of use and wastewater. Some are in residential areas, some in retirement areas. We’ve looked at one university; and you’ll be glad to know there was not a lot of illicit drugs. That was good. But there was a lot of caffeine!
We’ve also just completed a study of the role of multiple organic compounds in drinking water by looking at different carbon compounds that might remove or identify organic compounds. As Keith has mentioned, we’re looking at MCLs (maximum contaminant levels) for drinking water in the State of New Jersey. We’re really ahead of any other state. California doesn’t have this particular problem, so in this we’re definitely ahead and leading other states in knowing how to create these numbers and reference concentrations that inform us of the toxicity of these compounds. We’ll move ahead on that very soon.
KEITH COOPER The work which Sandra and a lot of the other people at DEP have done for a number of years has now given us the ability to set New Jersey MCLs on various types of contaminants. In regard to setting these rigorous and acceptable MCLs, I say that New Jersey is #1 in the country – probably #1 in the world actually.
Posted by NWNL on December 10, 2019.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.
Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.
All aerial images © Alison M. Jones, courtesy of LightHawk.org. All rights reserved.