New regulation targets 'forever chemicals' found in York County drinking water

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

A new state regulation to limit so-called "forever chemicals" in drinking water is one step away from becoming official after its approval by a state review committee.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of chemicals produced as early as the 1930s and mostly used in nonstick cookware, waterproof products and firefighting foam. In this group, PFOS and PFOAS are the two that were most commonly used in the U.S. before their effects were known.

These chemicals are hard to break down and are known to cause cancer and other health issues in laboratory animals and humans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Various homeowners and environmental groups in York County discovered elevated levels of PFAS in their drinking water supplies — and along Kreutz Creek.

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The new rule would change safe drinking water regulations by setting a maximum contaminant level, or MCL, on PFAS in public drinking water. The MCL rule would not apply to privately owned water sources, an Environmental Quality Board member said at the meeting.

PFOS would be limited to 18 parts per trillion, or ppt, and PFOA to 14 ppt, according to the MCL rule.

The Environmental Quality Board, a 20-person board that adopts state regulations, presented the MCL rule to the state's Independent Regulatory Review Commission at its Nov. 17 meeting. The IRRC reviews commonwealth agency regulations to make sure they are in the public interest, according to its website.

Water sampling with local environmentalists Ted Evgeniadis, from Mt. Wolf, in Hallam on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently updated its own PFAS health advisory, a nonenforceable guideline, placing limits on safe amounts of PFAS in drinking water. That advisory is significantly lower than the proposal in Pennsylvania, setting limits of 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion for the most common types of PFAS chemicals.

Currently, there are no enforceable regulations on PFAS levels in drinking water or ground water at a state or federal level in Pennsylvania. Some water treatment facilities test for the chemicals — but testing is not mandatory.

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Pennsylvania's new MCL rule approved this month will likely change that. It nears the end of a 10-step journey by landing on the desk of the attorney general, according to the DEP. If approved by the attorney general, the proposed rule will be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin and become immediately enforceable.

Lisa Daniels, from the Environmental Quality Board, highlighted the risk PFAS pose by citing studies that have found potential connections between PFAS exposure and cancers, low birthweights and weakened immune systems. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and National Cancer Institute back up the potential connections as well.

PFAS use has led to "elevated levels of environmental pollution and exposure in some areas of Pennsylvania," Daniels said.

The findings are echoed by a recent study from the Water Keeper Association that found that Kreutz Creek, in Lower Windsor Township, has the highest PFAS levels of waterways they tested in 34 states.

This isn't the first time Lower Windsor Township has heard of PFAS in the creek. Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, has been sampling water in the creek up- and downstream from Modern Landfill's wastewater discharge pipes for the past year.

Along with high levels of boron and nitrates, he found levels of PFOS at 374 ppt and PFOAS at 847 ppt. The recently updated Environmental Protection Agency lifetime health advisories, a nonenforceable guideline, limits PFOS to 0.02 ppt and PFOA to just 0.004 ppt.

The Modern Landfill site near the Kreutz Creek in Hallam on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.

Republic Services, the owner of Modern Landfill, is in the process of installing a reverse osmosis water filtration system to treat these issues. The work is scheduled to be completed in 2023.

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While Kreutz Creek is not a source of drinking water, residents remain concerned as children and pets have often played in the creek and some adults may not be aware of the contaminants. Several residents have had their wells tested for PFAS and have approached the township for support.

Even before the PFAS MCL got the committee's approval, Evgeniadis said the work is "a great step in the right direction." He hopes regulations on PFAS levels in groundwater will follow.

For more information on PFAS regulations in Pennsylvania, visit the DEP website at https://www.dep.pa.gov/Citizens/My-Water/drinking_water/PFAS/Pages/default.aspx.

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.