In recent weeks, confusion and unease have increased in several New Hampshire towns where contamination with the chemical PFOA has been detected in private wells.
Though the EPA has yet to determine a safe level of PFOA in drinking water, Sarah Pillsbury, the administrator for public drinking water with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, is hoping that's about to change.
“Part of the confusion, hopefully, will get clarified when the EPA comes out with a number – for a chronic level, a long-term health advisory,” she said, noting that in the absence of a set level from the EPA it’s hard to develop a uniform standard by which to measure the chemical.
Pillsbury was part of a panel weighing in on drinking water safety here and elsewhere as part of Thursday’s episode of The Exchange – focusing on the recent issues around PFOA in Merrimack and Litchfield, as well as other cases of contamination in New Hampshire.
“The good news is that they should shortly,” Pillsbury said. “They’ve committed to coming out with a number within the spring. And we’re hearing that probably within a few weeks we’ll have a number, and hopefully that will help people in trying to understand this.”
In the meantime, Pillsbury says she understands that water contamination can be a scary, confusing experience for any resident.
“I can’t imagine what people are going through that have elevated PFOA in the water,” she said. “It’s tough enough when you find out that the rocks are giving you radon and arsenic when you test your well. But to understand that what you’re drinking is a man-made chemical, that just, it just makes it worse.”
As one listener pointed out during the conversation, things can be especially frustrating when residents aren’t sure which agencies are responsible for resolving those issues or preventing them in the first place.
At the end of the day, Pillsbury said, state and federal authorities are the ones who are responsible for making sure things are cleaned up.
“Ultimately, I think, in terms of saying, ‘You just have to take care of the problem,’ it’s my agency, it’s the U.S. EPA,” she said.
And there have been cases in the past, Pillsbury said, where the state has been able to successfully intervene to address contamination – for example, when it waged a legal battle with oil companies over contamination from a chemical known as MTBE.
Just last week, Pillsbury noted, the governor signed into law a bill that establishes a designated trust fund allowing the state to use the proceeds from that case toward investigating and resolving drinking water issues.
Even with some progress, Pillsbury said it’s been “a tough couple of months in the world of people that care deeply about safe drinking water” – citing the issues around PFOA levels in New Hampshire as well as the fallout over contaminated drinking water in Flint, Mich.
“It’s felt like a particularly challenging time, and just a tough and a sad time,” Pillsbury said. “It’s a full court press at my agency and has been for a number of months on these issues.”
The full conversation with Pillsbury and others following water issues can be found here.