CDC Study Shows PFAS Chemicals May Be Risky At Lower Levels Than N.H. Regulates

Jun 20, 2018

A sign warns of chemical contamination inside the Seacoast's Coakley Landfill Superfund site.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

The federal government has published new data about the health risks of industrial chemicals known as PFAS.

The Centers for Disease Control study backs the concerns of some residents in contaminated areas here in New Hampshire, who say federal and state limits on PFAS aren't strict enough.

Many lawmakers, including New Hampshire’s congressional delegation, called for the study’s release after reports that the White House and Environmental Protection Agency had sought to withhold the data.

“It’s about time,” said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in a statement. “Granite State communities are living with constant questions about the safety of their drinking water, and this report will help us better understand the health risks of PFAS chemicals.”

The CDC study was released Thursday for 30 days of public comment, after being posted on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s website Wednesday.

(Click here to read the full CDC toxicology report.)

The report says most research on 14 PFAS chemicals agrees they can cause liver damage, increased cholesterol, thyroid disease, immune deficiencies, asthma, hypertension in pregnant women, fertility problems and developmental issues, including slightly low birth weigh in babies.

It also says some PFAS chemicals may be associated with kidney, prostate, testicular and pancreatic cancers.

The CDC report proposes minimal risk levels for four PFAS chemicals, based on the non-cancer risks of certain kinds of exposure.

For the chemical PFOA, the CDC’s provisional risk level is 11 parts per trillion. For PFOS, it’s just over 7 parts per trillion. One part per trillion is about the same as a grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

These limits are far lower than the EPA’s current, non-binding health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for both chemicals.

New Hampshire uses that level as its binding limit on PFOA and PFOS in groundwater.

Residents in contaminated areas, such as around the Saint Gobain factory in Merrimack and the Seacoast’s Coakley Landfill Superfund site, have said that limit should be lower.

They point to limits in states like Vermont – 20 parts per trillion – and New Jersey – around 14 parts per trillion, the lowest in the country.

Even those lower standards are higher than the CDC’s proposed risk levels.

New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services data shows that many areas not considered contaminated by current state standards could be deemed at risk under the CDC’s proposed levels.

Merrimack resident Laurene Allen has been affected by contamination from Saint Gobain. While she doesn't expect the state and federal PFAS standards to change overnight in response to the CDC study, she wants officials to acknowledge the findings. 

"As a precautionary measure, they should supply bottled drinking water to this town," Allen says. 

DES commissioner Robert Scott says in a statement they're eager to review the new data and "to use this information to help inform any actions that NHDES should take based on this new information." 

A June screenshot of New Hampshire's PFAS sampling map shows wells around Coakley Landfill, marked by the purple and red dots. Wells marked by orange and yellow dots are considered safe by current state standards and EPA guidance, but would be at risk under the CDC's proposals.
Credit NH DES

A DES spokesman declined to comment further.

The CDC is also proposing risk levels for two PFAS chemicals that are largely unregulated by current federal or state laws. The agency suggests a limit of 74 parts per trillion for a chemical called PFHxS, and 11 parts per trillion for PFNA.

The CDC says all these risk levels, which it calls MRLs, don't always mean you'll get sick if you're exposed at a higher level. And it says the levels aren’t necessarily meant to form regulations.

“It is important to note that MRLs are not intended to define clean-up or action levels,” the report says. “MRLs are intended only to serve as a screening tool to help public health professionals decide where to look more closely.”

The report says four federal Superfund sites are known to contain PFAS, but it says data isn’t available on how many more may have tested for it.

New Hampshire has found high levels of PFAS immediately surrounding the Coakley Landfill site, but says nearby drinking water supplies are within current state standards.

The EPA, which oversees cleanup at sites like Coakley, says it’ll continue collaborating with the CDC and other agencies as it crafts new PFAS standards this year.

“Addressing [PFAS] is one of EPA’s top priorities and the agency is committed to continuing to participate in and contribute to a coordinated approach across the federal government,” says the agency’s ground- and drinking water director Peter Grevatt in a statement.

The EPA plans to develop a maximum contaminant level for some kinds of PFAS, which would serve as a binding standard for drinking water. It also may list those chemicals as Superfund-eligible contaminants.

The EPA’s first regional public meeting to get input on those plans will cover New England. It’s scheduled for Monday night and Tuesday in Exeter.

Activists like Laurene Allen will speak at that meeting. They'll also take part in a protest near Saint Gobain in Merrimack Saturday. 

This story was updated Thursday to include reaction from residents and a statement from DES.