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School of Public Health
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School of Public Health

Drinking Water Will Be Safer Under New Federal Limits on Forever Chemicals

Person pouring water from tap.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced new federal rules requiring water companies to reduce the amount of so-called forever chemicals – which have been linked to increase cancer risk and other illnesses – in drinking water nationwide.

Robert Laumbach, a clinical researcher with the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute who has been studying forever chemicals in the drinking water in Gloucester County, talked to Rutgers Today about what they are and how they impact human health.

What are forever chemicals and why are they in our drinking water?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of several thousands of chemicals used in manufacturing and in many consumer products due to their useful properties that include being resistant to heat, water and oil. PFAS have been widely used in nonstick coatings, water repellent and stain resistant materials, food packaging, and firefighting foams, to name just a few. PFAS are known as "forever chemicals" because they do not break down in the environment. They are also water soluble and move easily through the environment. Some types of PFAS that tend to build up in the bodies of people and animals have been phased out of production and use by industry in the US, but these PFAS are still measurable in the blood of almost everyone in the country. These PFAS may still be produced and used in other countries, and other PFAS have not been regulated.

You've been participating in CDC research studying the health effects from drinking water contaminated by PFAS in Paulsboro and other sites in Gloucester County. Can you give an update on the study?

Our study with the Paulsboro, N.J., community is part of a national multisite study of eight locations across the United States with PFAS contamination in drinking water by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).  We collected blood samples from 844 adult and child participants to measure PFAS, performed other health-related tests, and asked about water consumption and personal health history. We have just completed the measurements of PFAS in blood and will be mailing the results to participants over the next several weeks. It will probably take a few years for the results of the study to be completed.

What does the new EPA rule do and why is the new rule being approved now?

The rule sets national drinking water standards for six PFAS chemicals that have been found in the drinking water in thousands of water systems across the country.  The rule addresses growing concern about potential health effects of drinking water contaminated with PFAS over long periods of time. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has been a leader in setting protective state standards for three common PFAS in drinking water several years ago. The federal standards are even stricter and will provide uniform protection to the public across the country.

What does it take to remove these chemicals and how long will it be until they are removed from drinking water?

Sometimes, drinking water purveyors can meet the standards by switching to different water sources. When necessary, PFAS can be effectively removed by filtration with activated carbon or resin systems.  However, these filters are large and costly to build and operate, and it may take several years for affected drinking water systems to comply with the new standards.

Why is the rule change important for public health?

Millions of people in the US are affected by PFAS contamination in their drinking water.  More study is needed to understand the potential health impacts of PFAS, but some of these chemicals have been linked to increased risk of cancer, developmental issues in children, reduced fertility and an increase in cholesterol levels. It is important to remove these chemicals from drinking water to prevent potential adverse health effects.