Important New PFAS Developments Increase Clean Water Protections, Access for Bucks County Communities

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says those exposed to PFAS have a higher risk for high cholesterol, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and damage to the immune system.
A community park occupies the site of the former Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster (also known as Johnsville). Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

2023 has only just begun and the year is already shaping up to be an important one for environmental health and conservation, with critical new protections and funding to address environmental hazards that plague communities across Bucks County.

There have been recent positive developments around per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) which are long-lasting chemicals whose components break down very slowly over time and are harmful toxins to human and environmental health. 

Earlier last year, a strict new statewide maximum public water contaminant level for PFAS was proposed after it was determined that levels previously deemed safe needed to be lowered. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) proposed lowering the maximum level from 70 to 14 in April, with the new limit approved earlier this month by Governor Josh Shapiro while still serving as our Attorney General. The previous maximum contaminant level was a federal standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and now in Pennsylvania it will be 14 for PFOA and 18 for PFOS — the two most common classifications of PFAS.

Due to their widespread use in different consumer, commercial, and industrial products, and overall environmental persistence, PFAS are found in the blood of humans and animals all over the world — including low levels in a variety of food products and in our shared environment — and may be linked to harmful health effects.

This new standard will help communities who have been negatively impacted by PFAS exposure, but did not have high enough levels for remediation before the threshold was lowered. Now, water companies will have to come out, test local water sources, and perform any and all necessary remediations. The DEP will do their own testing for compliance. 

Another important state-level improvement comes from the Growing Greener Plus Program, and federal funding that will help connect Perkasie Borough-residents to PFAS-free municipal water so they no longer have to rely on contaminated private wells. The $3.6 million Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority grant will help fund the cost of connecting 53 homes to water supplied by Perkasie Regional Authority. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says those exposed to PFAS have a higher risk for high cholesterol, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and damage to the immune system. Unfortunately, widespread use makes it challenging to study and assess the potential human health and environmental risks. Researchers and partners across the country are working hard to answer critical questions about PFAS and inform leaders on important legislative decisions on how best to protect environmental and human health.

Residents in Bucks County have been paying increasing attention to PFAS in recent years, as it has become clear that the county is a hotspot for the issue. For decades, the border of Bucks and Montgomery counties was the site of three active military facilities that used PFAS-based firefighting foam during training exercises. The areas have a history of PFAS contamination in drinking water and testing in the early 2010s indicated that PFAS had accumulated in the groundwater of the surrounding area, posing a major health risk for area residents. 

Researchers at RTI International, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Temple University, and Brown University received funding from The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to study PFAS and its possible relationship to health among those exposed to PFAS-contaminated drinking water in these communities.

This ongoing multi-site study will help researchers to better understand the full effects of these chemicals on human health, and inform legislation on PFAS contamination in the future. The Pennsylvania site includes 11 townships near the military bases in Bucks and Montgomery counties.

Researchers are recruiting and compensating adults and children who lived in the following Bucks and Montgomery townships between 2005 and 2017: Horsham, Ivyland, Warminster, Warrington, Abington, Hatboro, Northampton, Upper Dublin, Upper Moreland, Upper Southampton, or Warwick. Children whose mothers lived in these areas between 2005 and 2017, prior to their child’s birth, may also be eligible to participate. 

The study team plans to enroll 1,500 adults aged 18 and older and 300 children aged 5-17 (with parent/guardian permission) to evaluate their PFAS levels, health measures like thyroid hormone levels and liver function, and medical history (including personal and family history of cancer). Participants will receive individual test results with their PFAS levels, which they can share with healthcare providers. PFAS testing is normally very expensive, so this is an intriguing opportunity for anyone looking to have this important health information. 

We’re excited to see elected officials on both sides of the aisle supporting this important work and fighting to ensure that no one should have to drink water with dangerous PFAS “forever chemicals.” These new regulations and investments will help make clean, safe drinking water a reality for more Pennsylvanians.

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Molly Parzen

Molly Parzen is Executive Director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, a statewide environmental advocacy group.

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