Usually it’s not a bad idea to let the federal government set the allowable standards for toxic substances in the nation’s water and food. Federal agencies have the size and expertise to handle the challenging science.
But regarding a family of chemicals used to make very tough plastics — the kind used in nonstick cookware, fabric protectors and firefighting foams — New Jersey couldn’t wait. Its history of manufacturing made protecting the public more urgent.
So this month the state became the first in the nation to limit one of the chemicals, PFNA (for perfluorononanoic acid). Beginning next year, water providers must monitor supplies and reduce PFNA as needed to less than 13 parts per trillion in drinking water. That’s far stricter than the federal government’s current health advisory.
Exposure to the chemical at higher levels over time can cause liver and kidney problems, reproductive problems in men, and delays in development of fetuses and infants.
The state Department of Environmental Protection said PFNA contamination has been largely an issue for the Delaware River in South Jersey, due to past discharges from a particular chemical plant. High levels of it have been found in 11 public water systems and private wells in Salem and Gloucester counties near the river. Bottlenose dolphins from Delaware Bay have been found to have the chemical in their blood at concentrations well over 100 parts per billion.
But PFNA also was found in one well operated by the Atlantic County Municipal Utilities Authority, the state said. The well’s water treatment was upgraded to reduce it below the new state standard.
Work on the new regulation and the science behind it started last fall in the Christie administration and was completed under the Murphy administration, with substantial encouragement from the N.J. Drinking Water Quality Institute and environmental groups such as the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
The DEP is reviewing an institute recommendation to set strict limits on two others chemicals in the family, PFOA and PFOS. The federal Environmental Protection Agency may designate those two as hazardous substances under the Superfund law and recommend cleanups at contaminated sites.
The EPA may catch up with New Jersey soon. It expects to complete a national management plan for this family of chemicals by the end of the year that might include a recommendation for limits on PFOA and PFOS.
These chemicals cannot be effectively removed from drinking water by most in-home water filters. Setting standards that require water suppliers to remove them is leadership by New Jersey officials that benefits everyone.