There are no enforceable federal regulatory drinking water standards for the family of chemicals known as PFAS, sometimes called “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment.
Potentially harmful levels of “forever chemicals” contaminate some of the smallest drinking water systems in Maryland, the state’s latest round of testing shows.
The Maryland Department of the Environment reported in late April that its testing of 65 community water systems, which collectively serve about 81,000 people, detected per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in a little more than half the wells sampled.
In an earlier round of testing, released last July, MDE found at least traces of PFAS in 75% of the 66 larger water systems it checked, which serve more than 4 million residents. Wells supplying drinking water to Westminster and Hampstead, both in Carroll County, had concentrations of two particularly problematic PFAS compounds that were above the recommended safety threshold established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those wells were taken offline, according to MDE.
None of the smaller systems checked in the latest testing had PFAS contamination above the EPA health advisory level. But at least three small, private water systems had concentrations in excess of drinking water safety limits that have been proposed in neighboring Delaware and Pennsylvania, where state officials have made their own assessments of the health risks posed by PFAS.
Maryland PIRG director Emily Scarr called MDE’s latest findings “alarming,” given the state’s decision against setting its own limits for PFAS in drinking water.
“We are disappointed that Gov. Hogan has not directed the Department of the Environment to take bolder action on PFAS contamination,” she said. “It’s time for Maryland to join states across the country that are picking up the slack where the EPA has failed by setting strong restrictions on PFAS in water and holding polluting industries accountable for cleaning up the mess they’ve made.”
PFAS are a group of more than 9,000 synthetic chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s in many industrial and consumer products, including non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant carpeting, food packaging and firefighting foam. Many of them dissolve easily in water but break down very slowly (ergo their nickname of “forever chemicals”). They also can build up in people, animals and the environment.
Exposure to at least some of these chemicals, even in small amounts over years, has been linked to serious health effects, including kidney and liver disease, developmental issues and cancer.
Donald Hill, sitting outside his home in Naylor Mill Village in Salisbury, MD, said he hadn’t heard until told by a Bay Journal reporter that PFAS had been found in the mobile home park’s water supply.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) are two of the most widely used and studied chemicals in the group. They have been replaced by other PFAS in U.S.-made products, but they continue to be found in water samples.
There are no enforceable federal regulatory drinking water standards for PFAS, though the EPA has said it will propose maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS sometime this fall. Frustrated that the EPA had not acted earlier, at least nine states have adopted or proposed their own regulatory limits for those compounds, several of which are substantially below the EPA threshold.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has proposed maximum contaminant levels of 14 parts per trillion for PFOA and 18 ppt for PFOS. Delaware’s Division of Public Health has chosen ceilings of 21 ppt for PFOA and 14 ppt for PFOS, with a cap of 17 ppt when the two compounds are found together. Some states have even lower limits – New York’s is 10 ppt for each compound.
The highest levels of PFOA and PFOS detected in the latest MDE sampling were found in wells serving two mobile home parks in Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore and one in Carroll County northwest of Baltimore.
At Naylor Mill Village mobile home park on the outskirts of Salisbury, MDE inspectors discovered concentrations of PFOA and PFOS of around 36 ppt in a well furnishing drinking water to residents. MDE also detected PFAS at the Gateway Village mobile home park in nearby Delmar. There, levels were slightly lower, at 28 ppt. Samples taken at Twin Arch mobile home park near Mt. Airy in Carroll County registered levels ranging from 31 ppt to 43 ppt.
At least three water systems tested in MDE’s first round of sampling had similar PFAS levels. The state report did not identify those systems. It also said in each report that there were 13 other systems with PFAS levels between 10 and 28 parts per trillion, meaning some of those also could be above the limits proposed other states.
Word of MDE’s findings has not reached many water system customers yet. At Naylor Village, the home where Donald Hill, his wife and two adult children live is just a couple doors away from the water system shed. He’s been there since 1992 and works the night shift making paper plates for Dart Container Corp., about a 40-minute drive away in Federalsburg.
“You don’t have any trouble out here,” Hill said. “Everyone pretty well keeps to themselves.”
Hill said he doesn’t recall receiving any notices about PFAS contamination in his drinking water. He wasn’t aware of the situation until a Bay Journal reporter brought it to his attention.
To date, he said, he hasn’t had any qualms about the community’s water. It tastes just fine, he said. The family routinely uses tap water for making iced tea and coffee. They’ve never given thought to using bottled water.
Hill said he isn’t too worried because neither he nor his family members present any of the symptoms of PFAS exposure listed in government guides. But now that he knows about the chemicals’ presence, he is concerned about what it might do to their future health.
“You definitely got to think of that,” Hill said.
A well supplying water to residents of Gateway Village mobile home park in Delmar, MD, had PFAS concentrations below the federal health advisory level but above the maximum contaminant level proposed by Delaware.
Because the PFAS level in Naylor Mill’s well is only about half of the EPA’s recommended limit, MDE is not requiring any corrective action. It is asking the park owner to test its finished water twice a year “if feasible” and share the results with regulators.
Erika Campbell, manager of the park, said she intends to do the requested testing and notify consumers of the PFAS discovery in the “consumer confidence report” that community water systems are required to provide their customers each July. There are 42 homes using the system now, she said.
Beyond that, Campbell said, she’s received no directions or advice from MDE. She’s unsure about the feasibility and cost of acquiring a treatment system to remove the PFAS.
“As we need to, we’ll make the changes,” she said.
Up to now, Maryland has elected to wait for the EPA to set a nationwide drinking water standard, which may not be finalized until fall of 2023. MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said state regulators may decide to set a limit once the federal agency’s science advisory board finishes reviewing the latest research on the chemicals’ toxicity. That is expected sometime this summer.
In the meantime, Apperson said, MDE plans to use some of the state’s expected influx of federal infrastructure funding to provide financial assistance for installing PFAS treatment systems, drilling new wells or connecting to other water systems, among possible options.