PORTSMOUTH — The state Department of Environmental Services has set water quality standards for PFAS chemicals that are substantially lower than those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
DES on Friday filed a final rulemaking proposal to establish maximum contaminant levels (MCLs)/drinking water standards and ambient groundwater quality standards (AGQS) for four per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS).
DES said it used “the most recent and best science available” to set drinking water standards that are “protective for the most sensitive populations over a lifetime of exposure.” The standards it proposed are 12 parts per trillion for PFOA, 15 ppt for PFOS, 18 ppt for PFHxs and 11 ppt for PFNA. DES stated it established the levels to “ensure greater protection of public health related to the consumption of drinking water.”
DES said MCLs are drinking water quality standards that public water systems must comply with and an AGQS is the standard used to require remedial action and the provision of alternative drinking water at a contaminated site.
The EPA in May 2016 set permanent health advisories for PFOS and PFOA at 70 ppt. But many states have set substantially lower numbers, like New Hampshire did Friday, believing EPA standards were not protective enough.
PFAS are man-made chemicals used in products worldwide since the 1950s, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware and water-repellent fabrics. They also have a range of applications in the aerospace, aviation, automotive and electronics industries, among others.
The rulemaking proposal was filed Friday with the New Hampshire Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR) for consideration at its July 18 meeting. If approved by JLCAR, the new rules are scheduled to take effect Oct. 1.
DES was compelled to set the new standards by legislation drafted by former state Rep. Mindi Messmer, D-Rye, an environmental scientist.
Local concern over PFAS contamination followed its detection in a well at Pease International Tradeport. The source is assumed to be from firefighting foam used at the former Air Force base, according to the Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Thousands of people working at the tradeport, along with children and infants who attended two day-care centers there, were exposed to multiple PFAS chemicals from contaminated water in the city-owned Haven well. The city closed the well in May 2014 after the Air Force detected high levels of PFOS.
The ATSDR states PFAS exposure can increase cancer risks, lower birth weights, harm liver, thyroid and pancreas functions and increase cholesterol levels.
Portsmouth resident and mother Andrea Amico co-founded Testing For Pease, a grassroots group that has pushed for several years for more protective water standards.
“I’m really pleased to see that these levels have been reduced significantly since the initial proposals from DES came out,” Amico said Friday. “The levels seem much more in line with other states and are much more protective of human health.”
Amico said she was particularly pleased with levels set for PFOS and PFHxs, because “those PFAS are very prevalent at Pease and are at very high levels in the Pease population's blood.
She credited DES with adopting standards that protect our “most vulnerable populations” and for responding to community input.
“I think a big part of this reduction is community engagement and public comment,” Amico said. “It’s a very, very positive step in the direction.”
She believes the new levels will compel polluters to pay for the pollution they’ve caused.
“We drank this contaminated water without permission and without our knowledge and we shouldn’t have to pay to clean it up,” Amico said.
Messmer believes the numbers could have been set even lower, but credited DES with setting more protective water standards.
“I think it’s a great move and it validates the concerns of the people who have been fighting this for years on the advocacy level,” she said. “I’m very happy the state of New Hampshire has listened to us and have come up with these much more protective MCLs.
She believes the lower levels will force the Coakley Landfill Group to clean up Berry's Brook in Greenland and residential wells around the Superfund cleanup site.
“This has been going on for decades," Messmer said. "We need to limit the exposure immediately to these harmful chemicals in their water. The CLG needs to accept the responsibility immediately and stop exposing people to their toxins.”
The CLG is made up of municipalities and companies that used the landfill. Portsmouth is responsible for the largest share at 53.6%.
State Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, on Friday said the new levels “gets us to a place that is consistent with the science and are much more protective of human health.”
“I think DES is really doing the hard work to try to make sure their number one focus is on protecting human health,” he added.
He also said MCLs for lead and arsenic have continued to decrease and it’s likely that will happen with PFAS over time too.
He believes there also should be some standard when multiple PFAS contaminants are found in water but none on their own are above the MCL.
A DES representative said Friday such a standard has not been set.
“I think a combined number of even over 20 is concerning and should be remediated,” Sherman said.
He also called on the companies responsible for the pollution to pay for the cleanup.
“This underscores the need to hold the manufacturers accountable,” Sherman said. “This should not be a taxpayer expense. When you sell a product and you know it’s toxic and you know it’s persistent and you profit from it, you should have to clean it up.”