‘Emerging contaminants’ are chemicals unregulated by water quality or drinking water standards. They are considered emerging not because they are new but because there is a growing concern about their effects on human health and the environment. Among these contaminants are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, a group of man-made compounds nicknamed “forever chemicals” that have multiple household and industrial uses.
Because of their strong carbon-fluorine bonds, PFAS are chemically inert and difficult to break down. This property makes them attractive for applications that require fire-resistance or the ability to repel oil, grease, and water. They are commonly used in fire-fighting foams, nonstick cookware, stain-repellent carpeting, water-repellent clothing, and food packaging. Once introduced into our environment through these products, PFAS chemicals can leach into our water and our food, making their way into the human body. This is particularly concerning for fenceline neighborhoods near industrial sites, landfills, and airports or military bases — and places low income communities and communities of color disproportionately at risk.
The persistent nature of PFAS prevents them from decomposing in the environment or the human body, and they can bioaccumulate over time with adverse health impacts. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS in the blood of 97 percent of those tested. Exposure has been linked to multiple human health conditions including high cholesterol, thyroid toxicity, increased risk of cancer, and preeclampsia or high blood pressure during pregnancy. There is also evidence that PFAS exposure may lead to decreased vaccine response and reduced resistance to infectious diseases.
Because of these concerns, two of the most common PFAS — PFOS and PFOA — are no longer produced in the United States. In 2016, EPA established a lifetime drinking water health advisory for PFOS and PFOA at a combined 70 parts per trillion. However, this is a non-regulatory, unenforceable announcement meant for informational purposes only. And some studies suggest that adverse impacts may occur at much lower levels of exposure. Meanwhile, thousands of PFAS alternatives are still in use and remain untested, while hundreds more have been submitted to EPA for approval.
Based on the prolific use of PFAS within common household products, the growing concern about its environmental and public health impacts, and the presence of heavy industry within the James River basin, JRA is taking action to assess and address the risk of PFAS contamination in our watershed. Last year, we successfully supported legislation (HB586) directing Virginia’s Department of Health (VDH) to convene a work group to study the occurrence of PFAS within public drinking water systems and to recommend appropriate drinking water safety standards for PFAS. Separate legislation (HB1257) will go into effect in 2022 and further directs the State Board of Health to adopt drinking water standards for PFAS and two other emerging contaminants.
As a member of the VDH workgroup, JRA is helping to design a study that will test up to 50 drinking water sources across the state for PFAS contamination, but no state funding is currently available to support this important work. That’s why we’re asking the General Assembly to amend the budget and provide VDH with $60,000 for each year of the study. This budget amendment will pay for multiple samples at each of the water sources and for the use of a new, EPA-validated test that detects 11 additional types of PFAS chemicals.
Ensuring the health of our water starts with quality science-based information. We need your help to contact legislators today and ask them to support budget items 307 #1s in the Senate and 307 #2h in the House.