Updated, Aug. 14: First Taxing District annual brochure added.
NORWALK, Conn. — You probably have PFAs in your blood.
What are PFAs? You may be thinking Perfectly Fine Asymptomatic Substance. Or Popcorn Facilitated Awful Stuff. The latter is more appropriate as PFAs – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – can be found in the coating inside microwave popcorn bags. They’re toxic and they’ve been discovered by the First Taxing District in two of its five wells, but your drinking water is thought to be safe.
Their presence was discussed Friday in a forum organized by State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25). While Mayor’s Water Quality Committee Chairman Joe Schnierlein referred to the PFAs discovery as “almost an emergency,” Brian Toal of the Connecticut Department of Public Health said he’d let his children drink First Taxing District water.
“If you’re going to drink water, at least you know now what the level is in your water. It’s very, very low,” Toal said.
The First Taxing District initially tested for PFAs in December, said Dominick DiGangi, General Manager & District Engineer with the First Taxing District Water Department. The results for two of the district’s five wells came back higher than 70 parts per trillion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory PFA level. But the blend of water was at 38, and “the water that was going to the customer met the requirement,” DiGangi said.
Another test confirmed the unacceptable level, and the wells were immediately shut down, he said. The district started working with Norwalk Director of Health Deanne D’Amore on the problem in June.
While the First Taxing District has been criticized by Duff, among others, for not being forthcoming with the public, district officials did respond to the state’s directive to check the water for PFAs, according to Lori Mathieu, Drinking Water Section Chief, State Department of Public Health.
DPH asked that districts with more than 10,000 customers test the water, in what Mathieu characterized as a request as opposed to a mandate. Only a handful of water systems complied, she said.
While the EPA released a PFAs advisory in 2016, there are not yet any federal enforceable standards under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Setting up a contaminant level under the EPA will be “a very long process,” Mathieu said. In the meantime, states are developing their own standards. Connecticut’s guidelines are tougher than the EPAs. A state PFAs task force is at work, with orders to deliver a plan to Gov. Ned Lamont by Oct. 1.
PFAs were developed in the 1940s and are “great” at repelling water, grease, and heat, Mathieu said. They can be found in nonstick cookware, waterproof apparel, tents, sailcloth, and carpets, as well as in firefighting foam required by airports.
PFAs used in manufacturing become airborne, mix with rainfall, and eventually find their way into drinking water, said Ray Frigon of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
“It’s very, very persistent. It doesn’t break down that easily at all. It bioaccumulates, much like PCBs,” Frigon said. “It’s been shown to be toxic and migrates very easily in water.”
Most of the information about the effects of PFAs comes from testing on laboratory animals, the presentation showed.
“It has been discovered to be toxic at certain levels to humans and animals,” Toal said. “The health effects from PFAs range the gamut. It affects many, many different organs and systems, and many phases of life. Our drinking water levels are based upon developmental effects in fetuses and infants. Most of our action levels and regulations are based upon the very subtle effects that can occur in pregnancy.”
“It is present in human blood worldwide. Probably all of us have levels of measurable levels of PFAs in our blood because of the common daily exposure we have had,” Toal said, adding that the worst PFAs have been phased out, but there’s “very little toxicology data” on the replacement chemicals. It’s thought that the “shorter chain” compounds will break down faster but that’s not really known.
“The whole world is dealing with this PFAs question,” Toal said.
PFAs are used in plating operations, according to Frigon, and this brings us to the Kellogg-Deering Well Field, commonly referred to as the “BJ’s site,” at 272-280 Main Ave.
The city’s only Superfund site was occupied by ELINCO (Electric Indicator Co.) and DEEP is working with the EPA to see if that’s where the PFAs are coming from, as plating operations were done there, DEEP Remediation Division Environmental Analyst Jeffrey Wilcox said.
Finding the source will probably be more difficult than that, but the Kellogg-Deering Well Field is a place to start, he said.
Schnierlein was first to pose a question after the hour-long presentation, noting that PFAs accumulate in the body.
“Even though you are putting trace amounts out there, it’s still going to accumulate in people. Have you considered drilling other wells?” he asked the First Taxing District.
The answer was no, because getting a permit for a new well took four years the last time.
Scott Sherman, the only member of the public present who did not represent a group, called the meeting informative, but added, “You’re saying we’re well under the levels but my family drinks this water, so what have we been drinking? What’s accumulating in our bodies?”
Duff said it’s not just the water. PFAs are also in cookware.
Sherman said his family drinks tap water.
“I sort of feel like we’re getting mixed messages,” Sherman said. “Because you’re saying it’s well underneath the standard but we’ve got a room filled with government people here and it seems like the EPA is slow to recognize contaminants, but the state of Connecticut is ahead of the curve…. in a way we’re saying it’s not that bad but we’re shutting down wells.”
Duff said the situation isn’t yet known, which is why there’s a task force. He also said the legislature is going to have to consider action.
“Just a few years ago, we were talking about BPAs,” Duff said, referring to bisphenol A, an industrial chemical used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s. PFAs are “already out there, it’s been out there for decades.”
Looking for answers during the information-gathering stage is “not a realistic expectation,” Duff said. Had he been asked about PFAs in January, he said, he “wouldn’t have known what you were talking about.”
Asked by Sherman if he’d let his own kids drink First Taxing District water, Toal said, it’s “highly likely” the level of PFAs in that water are at or below what people are getting from all other sources. “…. Test the surface water in any reservoir anywhere in United States or in Connecticut, there’s a decent chance that the level of PFAs in that water is the same as is being delivered here… at least your water has been tested and you know what the level is.”