Read the full interview by Kara Holsopple (The Allegheny Front)

“Chemicals common in firefighting foam and used as coatings on everything from outerwear to frying pans have contaminated drinking water in parts of Pennsylvania, but they aren’t regulated by the state. PFAS is a class of chemicals known as ‘forever chemicals‘ because they don’t break down in the environment and they remain in the body. Exposure has been linked to a variety of health conditions, including testicular and kidney cancers and decreased birth weights.

The federal government has come up with a recommended, non-enforceable limit for PFAS in drinking water, but experts say that limit is not low enough. Pennsylvania has said it will regulate the chemicals, but hasn’t yet. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Kristina Marusic, a reporter for Environmental Health News, who, along with PublicSourcehas written about this recently.

Kara Holsopple: In June, the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board voted to move forward with setting a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFAS in drinking water. But that’s happened before. What’s the history there?

Kristina Marusic: The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been saying it plans to regulate these chemicals since 2017, when the nonprofit, environmental health organization Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed a petition with the Environmental Quality Board asking them to set an MCL for one of the most dangerous and common PFAS — PFOA, which is short for perfluorooctanoic acid. 

The Environmental Quality Board accepted that petition. It said ‘we agree we should regulate this in the state of Pennsylvania,’ but then two years later in 2019, DEP still hadn’t taken any steps toward regulating the chemical or moved forward with the prescribed process it is supposed to follow after it accepts a petition like that. So the Delaware Riverkeeper Network sued them to try and force them to take action.

Holsopple: Where is that lawsuit now?

Marusic: That lawsuit has been making its way through the court system since then. Earlier this year, DEP asked a court to dismiss it, saying now they are working on the regulations and have taken additional steps, so it should be a moot point.

But the court ruled that doesn’t actually address the issue of how long it took in the first place, and that they still need to clarify what the petition process is meant to be like for future citizens who file similar petitions so that there is clarity around how long it should take to start enacting new regulations.

Holsopple: What are Pennsylvania officials saying about why establishing a state limit for PFAS in drinking water is taking so long? 

Marusic: When I asked them about this in 2019, they said the process was going slowly because they needed to do more research on the health harms associated with these chemicals. They were having trouble hiring a qualified toxicologist and [they said] that Pennsylvania has some unique, pro-business laws that make it hard to quickly pass and implement new regulations, even if they are meant to protect people’s health. The pandemic then slowed everything down a little further. 

The state had started doing a statewide testing program in 2019 to get a sense of how widespread contamination in the state is, and that process was pushed back significantly by the pandemic. They didn’t wrap that up until about June of this year, and in the meantime, about 10 other states have taken action to regulate these chemicals, 

Holsopple: Where has PFAS contamination in drinking water been an issue in the state?

Marusic: The DEP tested around 400 sites throughout the state that they thought could have had contamination from PFAS chemicals based on where industries are that either manufacture or use PFAS. On the basis of that sampling, they concluded that there wasn’t widespread contamination in the state, but they only flagged locations with PFAS levels above that current EPA health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for combined levels of any of the 21 types of chemicals they looked for. Among the states that have set their own limits for PFAS, many of them keep the limits below 15 parts per trillion. Some are stricter than that and some are a little bit higher than that.”