There has been a lot of recent press about water pollution caused by PFOS and PFOA, in particular at Hoosick Falls in upstate New York and at the Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh. You may have wondered what the heck these chemicals are and should we be worried about them on Long Island. Here is some information to help answer these questions.
Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances. They are highly resistant to water, grease and stains, a characteristic that explains why they were widely used in carpets, clothing, furniture fabric, food packaging, and cookware. PFOA was used to make Teflon®. PFOA and PFOS are components of firefighting foam used at airfields.
Although the US production of these chemicals has been phased out, these chemicals are resistant to environmental degradation. As a result, they are still widely distributed in the environment and have been found to accumulate in humans, wildlife and fish.
In May 2016, the USEPA issued a health advisory about acceptable levels of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. If drinking water contains PFOA or PFOS above 70 parts per trillion (ppt), the USEPA recommends that steps be taken to notify the public and health officials in order to limit exposure and identify the source. This is an extraordinarily low concentration. Picture a swimming pool full of one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) ping pong balls. Now picture 70 of them painted yellow and the rest of them (999,999,999,930) painted white. That’s 70 ppt. In April 2016, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) added PFOS and PFOA to its list of hazardous substances.
In June 2016, the NYSDEC announced that it had reached settlements holding Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation and Honeywell International Inc. responsible for the PFOA water contamination in the Hoosick Falls area in upstate Rensselaer County. These plants manufactured Teflon®. Among other things, the settlement requires the companies to: (i) investigate PFOA contamination at four Honeywell and two St. Gobain plants; (ii) investigate the feasibility of an alternate water supply for the area; (iii) fund filtration systems for the local municipal water supply; and (iv) continue to pay for bottled water for local residents until the filtration systems are installed and working.
Two months later, in August 2016, the NYSDEC declared municipal landfills in the Village of Hoosick Falls and in the towns of Petersburgh and Berlin to be potential state Superfund sites. Monitoring wells at the Hoosick Falls site contained concentrations up to 21,000 ppt of PFOA, which is 3,000 times the USEPA health advisory limit. Samples from leachate on the Petersburgh/Berlin site contained concentrations up to 4,200 ppt of PFOA.
In early August 2016, the NYSDEC named the Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh as a New York State Superfund site based on PFOS contamination. PFOS was used in Class B firefighting foam at the air base. PFOS contamination was detected in Lake Washington, which served as Newburgh’s primary water supply. Concentrations up to 5,900 ppt were found in an outfall from the air base that drained into Silver Stream, a primary tributary of Lake Washington.
Can it happen on Long Island? It already has. In July 2016, PFOS was detected in public supply wells near the Air National Guard Base at Gabreski Airport, in Westhampton Beach. Concentrations of PFOS at 14,300 ppt were detected in monitoring wells. Groundwater downgradient of the current fire training area contained concentrations of PFOS at 58,900 ppt and PFOA at 6,930 ppt. Groundwater downgradient of the former fire training area contained concentrations of PFOS at 44,300 ppt and PFOA at 653 ppt. Not surprisingly, Gabreski was declared a state Superfund site a few weeks ago.