Lawmakers took a major step last month to curb toxic chemicals that have polluted the water of cities and towns across America. If it passes in the U.S. Senate, the new bill will usher in a federal law to regulate “forever chemicals” in air and drinking water. The legislation could bring vital funding and cleanups to affected Hudson Valley communities like the City of Newburgh.
On July 21, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would designate two persistent chemicals–perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)–as “hazardous substances” and set a long-awaited, national standard for drinking water.
The compounds are the most studied in a group of thousands of PFAS – short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Known informally as “forever chemicals,” because they don’t break down in the environment, PFAS can take years to leave the human body. They’re so widespread that most Americans have some level of PFAS in their blood.
Newburgh water was found contaminated with elevated levels of PFAS in 2016. The chemicals were later traced back to PFAS-containing fire foam at nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base. “It’s a step in the right direction,” said Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey.
Last year, New York State set a maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. For context, in 2016, the city’s lake reservoir tested with PFAS at 170 parts per trillion – more than twice the Environmental Protection Agency’s current health advisory level. Months later, blood tests showed Newburgh residents had almost four times the amount of PFOS in their blood as the general U.S. population.
Humans are exposed to PFAS through food, dust, drinking water and products that contain them. They’re found in everything from makeup and dental floss to carpets and paper to-go boxes. And they’ve been linked to certain cancers.
If signed into law, the PFAS Action Act of 2021 would empower the EPA to order the cleanup of contaminated sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. The bill would see PFOA and PFOS designated as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and give the EPA five years to determine whether to regulate other PFAS chemicals.
The EPA would also decide whether to classify PFAS as toxic pollutants under the Clean Water Act. If this happens, industrial polluters that discharge PFAS into certain water bodies could face steep fines and penalties.
“That’s exactly how it got into our bodies in the City of Newburgh,” said the mayor, referring to a stream that carried PFAS from the air base into the city’s drinking water reservoir at Washington Lake.
Because of their resistance to heat, oil and water, PFAS chemicals are highly valued in construction, aerospace, the military and other industries. “They take a great deal of time to break down and be released from our bodies,” said Dr. Erin Bell, an environmental epidemiologist at the University at Albany School of Public Health. “It has to do with the chemistry and shape of each chemical.”
She was speaking about the superstrength, carbon-fluorine bond found in PFAS molecules. “The bonds are very difficult to break,” she said, noting PFOA and PFOS can have half-lives that range from two to more than 20 years in humans. “What makes them good for manufacturing and for industry makes them bad for the environment and our bodies, in the sense that it takes a long time for them to degrade,” Bell said.
PFAS exposure has been linked to serious health problems: high cholesterol, liver damage, decreased vaccine response, low birth weight, kidney cancer and testicular cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They have the capacity to impact the immune system,” Bell said, and studies also suggest PFAS can adversely affect thyroid function.
Bell is part of a team of scientists working with the CDC on an epidemiological study designed to look at health outcomes in communities exposed to PFAS. Hundreds of Newburgh residents are expected to participate. Initial study results are due by the end of next year, Bell said.
Harvey hopes to eventually see a full cleanup of the air base. “I would ask the federal government to completely remediate the source of this contaminant, clean up our lake, ban these chemicals and provide reparations and compensation to those of us who have had exposure to this,” he said.
The bill sets aside $200 million a year through 2026 in assistance for publicly-owned water utilities and forms a grant-funding program that gives priority to disadvantaged communities like Newburgh, with more than a quarter of its population living in poverty.
But it can’t undo years of exposure to PFAS. “I’m worried about the water,” said City of Newburgh resident Carlos Navarro, who doubts he’ll ever be comfortable drinking the city’s water.
The Biden Administration has pledged to support legislation to limit PFAS once it passes through Congress. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will consider the bill after members return from summer recess in September.