Recent news regarding elevated levels of a commonly used chemical in drinking water may have potentially greater implications for almost all public water supply systems.  PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which have been identified as carcinogens, have been reported in 570 water systems, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis of water utility data from NJDEP.  Only a year ago, just 47 systems reported PFAS in their water.  This information resulted in water systems warning their customers of the chemical’s presence and its potential impacts.  If more systems make similar announcements in the near future, how will water suppliers, NJDEP and the general public react?

PFAS chemicals include PFAN (perfluorononanoic acid), PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perflurooctanoicsulfonic acid), are a family of substances that do not breakdown.   PFAS was used in a variety of commercial items, such as food packaging, water repellants and non-stick items, and fire-fighting foams.   While the evidence of human health risks has been acknowledged, the regulatory response has been inconsistent.   The USEPA has yet to fully regulate PFAS. In contrast, some states, including New Jersey, quickly developed groundwater drinking standards and maximum contamination PFAS limits for drinking water, and required testing.  Elevated testing results have caused water systems to address the issue.

In a recent example, the Borough of Bellmawr, the local water purveyor notified its water supply users that it had shut down a drinking water well supplying half the borough’s water the due to the discovery of PFNA. Although the levels of PFNA were slightly above the 13 parts per trillion (ppt) standard, citizens were warned and advised that, if they had special conditions such as a compromised immune system, they should seek advice from their health care advisors.

If EWG’s statistics are correct, we can expect more of these announcements from drinking water purveyors.  It remains to be seen whether multiple warnings around the state cause further response by NJDEP.