Not long ago, Nathan Volpi began wondering about the safety of the tap water that he, his wife and two young children had been drinking for years.
Volpi, a lawyer, had heard worrisome stories from friends and relatives in southeastern Pennsylvania about tainted drinking water found near military bases there. The same contaminants had turned up in wells serving Harrisburg International Airport just across the Susquehanna River from his home in Newberry Township, and he knew of defense facilities in the general area.
“Seeing all these red flags,” Volpi recalled, “I decided to get my water tested to see how it came out.”
It cost him $350 to get a private lab to check it. A few months ago, he found out that the well water supplied to his home by a private utility contains fluorinated chemicals at levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says could be harmful to human health.
Since then, Volpi said, “All of Newberry Township has been in a bit of an uproar about it.”
The suburban community midway between Harrisburg and York is among the latest nationwide to discover that the water they’ve been drinking has been infiltrated by some widely used but poorly understood chemicals generally referred to as PFAS — short for per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances.
PFAS are a large group of manmade chemicals that since the 1940s have been used in a host of consumer and industrial products, including nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics and some firefighting foams.
They’re practically everywhere — including in the blood of virtually every person in the United States.
PFAS have been found in water supplies or groundwater in more than 600 places in 43 states, according to data mapped by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University.
Many of the contaminated sites are military bases and airports that used fire-fighting foam containing PFAS, while others are factories where the chemicals were made or used in making other products.
In the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed, there are at least 18 sites where PFAS have been detected. That could mean that relatively few industrial facilities in the region have made or used PFAS — or it may mean that no one’s looked very hard.
That’s about to change in Pennsylvania. With 23 sites already under investigation there, including four in the Bay watershed, the Wolf administration has made PFAS a priority. In June, the Department of Environmental Protection began sampling about 360 drinking-water systems believed to be at risk.
“We needed to start getting our arms around just how prevalent this was in the commonwealth,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in an interview.
By some estimates, there are nearly 5,000 types of PFAS. All include carbon and fluorine atoms in a chemical bond that scientists say is very hard to break. The durability that makes them attractive commercially is a concern to environmental specialists. The compounds persist long after they’ve been produced, leading some scientists to dub them “forever chemicals.”
Some PFAS compounds can travel through groundwater or surface water. They also can move through air. And, they tend to bioaccumulate, or build up, in the bodies of animals and people who ingest them. A check of blood drawn nearly two decades ago for a nationwide health survey found PFAS in more than 98% of the samples.
That worries some scientists, who say that some PFAS display all of the problematic traits seen in contaminants like mercury and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. Those two toxic substances are the top causes of fish consumption advisories in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“It’s just a very complex group of chemicals that do not break down easily in the environment, but have the potential to be as widespread and persistent as PCBs,” said Michelle Lorah, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who briefed the Chesapeake Bay Program’s toxics workgroup on PFAS late last year.
“And right now,” Lorah added, “there is a lack of information on them in the environment and on their toxicity. The science is trying to catch up.”
Some studies, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, have shown that exposure to some PFAS may affect fetal and child development, including changes in growth, learning and behavior. They may also lower fertility and interfere with natural hormones, raise cholesterol, affect the immune system and even increase cancer risk. Unlike PCBs, PFAS do not concentrate in fat, but in blood. Yet they can remain in the body for years after ingestion.
While concerns have been mounting for decades, the EPA has been slow to regulate PFAS. In the early 2000s, the agency persuaded industry to voluntarily phase out two of the most produced compounds. Among other things, PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonate, were used to make nonstick cookware, waterproof and stain-resistant fabrics and some fire-fighting foams. Years later, they are still the most commonly found PFAS in drinking water and blood samples.
In 2016, the EPA set a lifetime health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion. (One part per trillion is equivalent to one drop in a pool of water covering a football field to a depth of 43 feet.)
That level may seem inconsequential. But Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, explained in a press briefing that PFAS can bioaccumulate in people’s bloodstreams to 100 or 200 times the level consumed in drinking water..
The EPA directed the nation’s large public water systems several years ago to check for PFOA, PFOS and a handful of other compounds. About 1 percent of the 5,000 systems reported detecting the contaminants at levels higher than the agency’s health advisory.
Under pressure to do more, the EPA announced in February that it is working on setting a maximum contaminant level in drinking water for PFOA and PFOS. It also said it was gathering information and seeking comment on whether to regulate a broader class of PFAS.
The Fluoro Council, an industry association representing PFAS manufacturers, says manufacturers have replaced PFOA and PFOS with other fluorinated compounds that are less likely to build up in the blood. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that levels of PFOA and PFOS found in blood have declined greatly in the last two decades.
Birnbaum, head of the national environmental health lab, said some of the replacement compounds appear to be less toxic because they don’t bioaccumulate. But she noted that may be offset if people are ingesting them daily in drinking water.
“My question,” Birnbaum said, “would be ‘why are we making chemicals that never go away?’”
Given the mobility and persistence of PFAS, drinking water is just one path of exposure. The Environmental Working Group reported recently that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found substantial PFAS levels in some grocery store meats and seafood and in off-the-shelf chocolate cake in the mid-Atlantic region.
FDA officials confirmed the unpublished findings but stressed that PFAS were not detected in most of the foods and said that the levels detected likely don’t represent a health concern. Several items had concentrations that exceeded the EPA advisory level for drinking water — the cake by 250 times — but there is no federal safety standard for PFAS in foods.
Some studies also suggest that at least some PFAS can make their way into aquatic life. Researchers in 2002 reported finding PFOS in oysters collected from the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay. The levels in Chesapeake oysters were very low, except at Hog Point, at the mouth of the Patuxent River in Maryland, right by a naval air base. That oyster contained the second highest concentration of PFOS of all the bivalves analyzed.
A handful of states, including Pennsylvania, have decided to set their own limits. Most other Bay watershed states say they’re relying on the EPA to set nationwide standards for PFAS but some are looking at steps they can take to gauge the extent of the problem in their jurisdictions.
Back in Pennsylvania’s Newberry Township, Nathan Volpi is waiting for another test of his family’s drinking water. Even with Suez, the company filtering the tainted wells before supplying the water, Volpi decided to pay more than $2,000 to put in a whole-house carbon filtration system. The family is still using bottled water until new tests show the tapwater is PFAS-free.
“I figure, hey, it’s got to run through two of them,” Volpi said. “I hope it’s enough.”
Here are details on how each state in the watershed is moving on this issue:
Last September, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced that “in the absence of federal action, Pennsylvania will move forward aggressively to ensure Pennsylvania residents are protected.”
Pennsylvania has never set a drinking-water standard before, and so the state is in the process of hiring or contracting for toxicologists to help parse the science and come up with a defensible limit designed to protect people’s health.
The water system sampling begun in June will help reveal the extent of the contamination and its impacts, explained Lisa Daniels, DEP’s Safe Drinking Water Program director.
The DEP also has beefed up its environmental testing laboratory to extract minute amounts of PFAS from water samples and then identify the compounds and their concentrations.
“It’s pretty challenging to be asked to analyze down to the parts-per-trillion range,” said June Black, organic chemistry section chief for DEP’s Bureau of Laboratories.
The state expects to spend $500,000 on the sampling, which could take close to a year to complete, and another $1 million in the analysis and preparation of its drinking water standards, the DEP’s Daniels said.
In Newberry Township, the DEP responded promptly once Nathan Volpi shared his water test results. Officials urged Suez, the company supplying the water, to confirm Volpi’s findings with its own tests. But the company chose not to wait, quickly installing granular activated carbon filtration systems on four of its 10 wells serving the township.
“In our mind it was paramount to get out there and zero it out,” said Richard Henning, the company’s senior vice president. The carbon filters have reduced PFAS to undetectable levels in the four treated wells, he said. In the other six, concentrations are below the EPA lifetime health advisory, the company reported.
At a public meeting June 13 in Newberry Township, a DEP official said an electronics factory and former scrapyard might be sources of PFAS.
Residents at the meeting expressed appreciation for the state’s response, but still had questions.
“I feel like the ball is rolling in the right direction,” said Deb Smith, who works at a school in the area, but she was “not reassured that everything’s OK.” After all, she noted, her son had attended elementary school not far from the contaminated wells and drank the water there.
State regulators said they plan to begin testing 35 private wells there in late July to see if they have any contamination.
There are seven current or former military installations and one municipal water supply in Maryland where contamination has been detected, according to state officials and public records.
Ben Grumbles, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said in an interview that assessments are under way at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, Joint Base Andrews, an Air Force base in Prince George’s County, the Naval Research Laboratory in Chesapeake Beach and at Fort Meade and the Bay Head Annex, both in Anne Arundel County.
Aberdeen Proving Ground was implicated when Harford County discovered PFAS in its nearby Perryman wellfield, which furnishes water to about 30% of the utility’s 40,000 customers, according to Bill Bettin, deputy public works director. The level detected was below the EPA advisory limit, but the county already had a carbon filtration system on the wellfield to deal with another carcinogenic contaminant, the solvent trichloroethylene.
Grumbles did not mention two other military sites with documented contamination: Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County and the former White Oak Naval Surface Warfare Center in Silver Spring.
At the sprawling Patuxent River air base, PFAS at levels up to 16 times the EPA health advisory were detected in shallow groundwater in 2017, according to a May 2018 consultant’s report. The facility includes headquarters for the Naval Air Systems Command and a test range for aircraft and pilots.
The contaminants were found in at least eight of 11 monitoring wells in a 20-acre area on the southern end of the base. Some buried plastic containers, including one with a label for fire-fighting foam, had been dug up there in the 1990s, the consultant said. Metal drums and other contaminants were also found there and removed, but testing for PFAS didn’t occur until two years ago, the report says. The Navy plans to further investigate that area and other sites on the base, according to base spokesman Patrick Gordon, who noted that 2014 testing of the base’s deep drinking-water wells found no PFAS.
PFAS levels higher than the EPA health advisory also were detected in groundwater at the White Oak site, according to a Department of Defense report last year to Congress.
Grumbles said the EPA and the Pentagon are handling military site investigations, but state regulators are looking to check for contamination elsewhere.
Grumbles, a former EPA official, said Maryland would work with the EPA on setting a PFAS drinking water limit.
“I think the real question is whether or not they’re moving fast enough,” he said.
Virginia is also “following the federal lead” on dealing with PFAS contamination, said Ann Regn, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Regn said state regulators are aware of four federal facilities with PFAS issues, two of which are on the fringe of the Bay watershed — Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach and Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress in the City of Chesapeake.
The Navy has tested for PFAS in dozens of private wells neighboring Oceana and Fentress and is supplying bottled water to eight households with levels higher than the EPA advisory limit, according to Oceana spokeswoman Jennifer Christine Hayes. The Navy expects to contract with Chesapeake, VA, to extend municipal water to the well owners near Fentress, she said.
In addition, the Norfolk Naval Base and Joint Base Langley-Eustis both have PFAS higher than the recommended limit in groundwater, but none off base, according to the DOD report.
And in Richmond, PFOA was among several toxic chemicals found in groundwater at DuPont’s Spruance manufacturing plant. According to an EPA website, the company installed a groundwater extraction and treatment system last year.
Delaware has three contaminated sites, but only one in the Chesapeake watershed. Elevated PFAS levels found in three wells furnishing drinking water to the town of Blades prompted authorities in early 2018 to warn residents not to drink or cook with it.
Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, said his staff was working with the EPA to investigate possible contamination from a pair of chrome-plating facilities in town when they discovered the problem.
“We had a hot minute to figure out how we’d deal with this,” Garvin recalled. The state promptly furnished bottled water to the 1,300 residents served by the town wells. It then paid $225,000 to install a treatment system.
A DNREC spokesman said the state has also provided home filtration equipment to nine households on private wells on the town’s outskirts
Meanwhile, Delaware regulators are reviewing records to see if they can identify other facilities that may have used PFAS, Garvin said.
“Much like the rest of the country, we’re still trying to figure a way through all of this,” he said.
Of five drinking-water systems with known PFAS contamination, only one is in the Bay watershed. The city of Martinsburg took one of its two water filtration plants offline in 2016 after learning it had levels higher than the EPA’s health advisory. The city ultimately installed a carbon filtration system. The suspected source is a nearby Air National Guard base.
New York has about three dozen PFAS detections, but none in the Susquehanna River watershed. The state is surveying more than 2,500 locations for potential contamination, including 100 groundwater public water supplies, a Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman said.
An advisory council last year recommended that New York set a drinking-water limit of 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, far below the EPA’s lifetime health advisory.