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How new federal PFAS proposals would affect New Hampshire

Annie Ropeik
PFAS has been found in water supplies across New Hampshire, including near Saint Gobain's manufacturing facility in Merrimack.

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing new regulations for some PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The proposals would create the first nationwide rules for public drinking water systems when it comes to testing for PFAS, notifying the public if they’re at levels higher than the EPA’s specifications, and treating the water to limit those chemicals.

New Hampshire was the first state to require local water systems, wastewater plants and landfills to routinely test and treat for four PFAS chemicals – but the EPA’s proposed standards are stricter than the state’s current law. The Agency says their proposal would preventthousands of deaths and tens of thousands of serious illnesses.

Here’s an overview of the proposed federal regulations, and what they might mean for New Hampshire’s efforts to address PFAS pollution in the state.

What are PFAS chemicals and why are they a concern?

PFAS are a class of over 9,000 chemicals. They help make things water resistant and oil resistant, so they’ve been used in products like nonstick cookware, rain coats, and makeup. Sometimes they’re nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the environment and they can stay for a long time in water, soil, air, and the human body. They’ve been in use since the 1940s, and two of the most widely used ones, PFOA and PFOS, have been replaced in the US by other PFAS chemicals.

Scientific studies show exposure to high levels of certain PFAS could be linked to health outcomes like increased risk of some cancers, reduced fertility, developmental effects in children, and hormonal effects.

Where have we seen these chemicals in New Hampshire?

PFAS have been widespread throughout the US, and studies show most people in the US have some level of PFAS in their blood.

But there have been a couple of major contamination sites in New Hampshire where the levels of exposure have been particularly high: one at the former Pease Air Force Base, which was contaminated through firefighting foam, and one around the Saint Gobain manufacturing facility in Merrimack. The chemicals have been found in water supplies in every county in New Hampshire.

Communities have undertaken projects to remove PFAS from their public water systems. The state also runs a program to help people remediate PFAS in their private well systems or connect to public water.

How are the federal regulations different from New Hampshire’s current regulations?

New Hampshire has regulated four PFAS chemicals in drinking water since 2020, and our state standards are some of the strictest in the U.S.

But the EPA is proposing even stricter regulations – a fraction of what NH’s regulations currently permit – and has added two more PFAS chemicals to the roster, including HFPO-DA, commonly referred to as “GenX chemicals.”

New Hampshire regulates PFOA in drinking water at 12 parts per trillion and PFOS at 15 parts per trillion. Those limits would go down to 4 parts per trillion to each, under the EPA’s proposal.

The state regulates PFHxS and PFNA at 18 and 11 parts per trillion respectively. In the EPA’s proposal, those chemicals would be included in a hazard index with PFBS and HFPO-DA, using a formula to regulate their levels together.

The EPA has also proposed health-based goals for water systems that say there should ideally be zero PFOA and PFOS in water. Those goals only consider public health, but the actual proposed limits also consider the ability of water systems to detect and treat the chemicals.

What are advocates saying about these proposed rules?

Laurene Allen started Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water and has been advocating for PFAS remediation since she found out about her exposure in 2016. She says the EPA’s announcement was welcome, but there’s more work to do.

“I'm really pleased. And I'm also concerned that this isn't really enough. But I also understand that this is the foundation that has to happen. The EPA currently is trying to make up for decades of various administrations who kind of kicked this problem down the road,” she said.

Allen says she’s advocating for PFAS to be regulated as a class, with all the PFAS that can be tested for regulated together, instead of chemical by chemical.

Another advocate, Andrea Amico, is also pushing for all PFAS to be regulated as a class. She started the organization Testing for Pease to lobby on behalf of people who were exposed on the former Pease Air Force base. She says the new EPA proposals are validating, but also hard to hear.

“Just the PFOS level alone in the Haven well was 2,500 parts per trillion, and my family was exposed to that water,” she said. “So when I think about the EPA coming out now and saying four parts per trillion for PFOS, it scares me a bit to think about the high levels that my family were exposed to and what that’s going to mean for their health in the long term.”

She says people who have been exposed to PFAS should have access to blood testing and medical monitoring, something advocates have been pushing for for years. Another next step, she says, would be to ban non-essential uses of PFAS, like in cosmetics and food packaging.

What have New Hampshire leaders said about the proposals?

Gov. Chris Sununu has been critical of the EPA’s proposal.

In a statement, Sununu said, “New Hampshire has been ahead of the curve – more than any other state – on identifying and remediating PFAS contamination. New Hampshire has been the Gold Standard on this issue. As an environmental engineer, I’m concerned these proposed standards are impractical and unreasonable, and will place unbearable costs on local communities without the predicted results or health benefits.”

If the rules are implemented, what will change for local communities in New Hampshire?

Public water providers in New Hampshire are already required to test and treat PFAS by state law; the proposed federal regulations would just raise the bar on the limits they must hit.

The state’s Department of Environmental Services says there are about 150 water systems that have already had to treat PFAS, and the proposed federal regulations could add around 200 more systems in New Hampshire to that number.

The limits don’t apply to people who use private wells, which is almost half of New Hampshire residents, but the department says about 1,000 extra private wells could also need some kind of help or remediation.

“No question that more money will be needed to assist these public water systems to come into compliance if these standards become effective,” said Mike Wimsatt, the Department’s Waste Management Division Director.

The federal government has made more funding available to help remediate PFAS in drinking water through the bipartisan infrastructure law – about $9 billion.

Water systems that have already treated their water for PFAS with granulated activated carbon are likely already meeting those proposed federal rules, according to Wimsatt.

“If you already have carbon treatment because you were above New Hampshire standard, more than likely this wouldn't change the situation for you,” he said.

What’s next? 

There’s a public hearing on the EPA’s proposal on May 4th. Anybody can sign up to provide comments to the EPA on the proposal. People need to register if they want to speak at that hearing by April 28th.

The rules are expected to be finalized by the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, state regulators are working on developing a standard for PFAS in soil, which they’re required to propose this coming November.

Further reading: PFAS expert tips: How to reduce your exposure to harmful ‘forever chemicals’

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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