Update, Sept. 5: Danbury Airport is not in the Norwalk River Watershed.
NORWALK, Conn. If you’re worried about the newly discovered contaminants in Norwalk’s drinking water, a reverse osmosis filtration system is your best bet, according to Mayor’s Water Quality Committee Chairman Joe Schnierlein.
Schnierlein was talking about PFAs – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, toxic chemicals known to create health problems – that were recently found in two First Taxing District wells. The wells were shut down.
Schnierlein said Thursday that PFAs were also found in Second Taxing District water. The South Norwalk Electric & Water (SNEW) website states that a barely detectable level of Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a type of PFA, was found in its water.
Schnierlein agreed the levels are “very low,” but stressed, along with Harbor Management Commissioner John Pinto, that the problem with PFAs are that they “bioaccumulate” in your body. Schnierlein offers this analogy: it used to be that women would poison their husbands with arsenic, a little at a time, so it bioaccumulated into a lethal dose. The unsuspecting victim didn’t know what he was ingesting, but it built up in his body until he “keeled over,” as Schnierlein put it.
“This can be a similar thing eventually, but instead of dying from it, you won’t die directly from it, you might die from something else,” he said at Thursday’s Harbor Management Commission meeting.
SNEW’s barely detectable PFOA level translates to three parts per trillion, well below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.
EPA doesn’t have a regulatory level and action is slow, officials said at a recent forum held by State Sen. Bob Duff (D-25), at which Brian Toal of the Connecticut Department of Public Health called PFOAs “the worst” of the PFAs.
The health advisory limits are set to protect people from the most sensitive effects, which are developmental (e.g. growth, low birth weight), the Norwalk Health Department said in a July drinking water update. PFAS may also reduce immune system function and decrease the body’s response to vaccines. Exposure to these chemicals at higher concentrations may cause other health problems, including an increase in cholesterol levels, liver and thyroid problems, and an increased risk for testicular and kidney cancer.
Schnierlein on Thursday detailed the history of people demanding products such as non-stick cookware, fire-retardant clothing and raincoats, resulting in the widespread use of PFAs and its presence in water around the world. Firefighting foam, which also contains PFAs, is mandatory at airports. There are 51 airports in Connecticut, according to Schnierlein.
The foam can be introduced into any nearby stream or farm as runoff that finds its way into the fields, Schnierlein said. Many airports are located near farm fields for safety reasons as, even if a plane overshoots the runway, a field is still a relatively safe landing area.
Pinto mentioned polybrominated biphenyls, chemicals that were added to plastics used in a variety of consumer products, with unclear effects on human health. The chemicals all fall under the category of endocrine disruptors, and there are “millions of pounds of this stuff in the environment,” he said. But because studies are done on one chemical at a time, there’s no research on the effects of combined chemicals bioaccumulating in bodies.
“This is the problem I am having myself, just thinking about all this,” Pinto said.
“You can lose sleep,” Schnierlein replied.
It was pointed out that Teflon doesn’t release PFAs unless heated to 500 degrees. It’s also recommended that people use non-metal utensils to avoid scratching the Teflon so as not to release toxic substances.
“Now, how many people understand that? And they’ll do that and how many pots get thrown away? And all of a sudden this goes in the landfill?” Pinto said.
Levels set without research
The First Taxing District wells, which have been shut down, were tested at 38 parts per trillion, well below the EPA’s advisory of 70 parts per trillion.
“Because of the EPA political climate right now and funding for research, they haven’t been able to do testing. So they can’t put, like, a specific number that will cause these types of (health) issues,” Schnierlein said.
Gov. Ned Lamont has formed a task force to study PFAs.
There’s only one lab in the state authorized to do testing and the testing equipment costs around $750,000, Schnierlein said. The tests themselves cost about $400.
Activated charcoal filters can help remove the chemicals from the water supply but research shows reverse osmosis filters are the most successful, he said. But it’s also critical that you change the filters because you could just be pumping it right back into the into your drinking water.
The Norwalk River, Silvermine River and the Five Mile River haven’t been tested, nor have the shellfish or finfish in Long Island Sound, Schnierlein said.
PFAs accumulate in proteins, not fats, according to the Connecticut Department of Health and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
Commission Chairman John Romano began to shut down the ranting by quipping, “Really great that we’re getting this science lesson. But can we move on?”
“To make a long story short, you need to be aware of this because it is going to become an issue” with regard to shellfish, Schnierlein said.
Shellfish beds were closed to fishermen in New Hampshire after firefighting foam was released at an airport, he said. Pinto pointed out that the PFAs continue to bioaccumulate regardless of whether the beds are closed.
Asked by Romano whether trace amounts have been found in local shellfish, Schnierlein said, “No, they haven’t done any testing…And that’s the way you don’t find any trace amounts in shellfish.”
While Norwalk doesn’t have an airport, Danbury does, and Danbury is part of the Norwalk River watershed, Pinto and Schnierlein indicated.
“The Danbury Airport is not in the Norwalk River Watershed,” Norwalk River Watershed Association President Louise Washer said late Wednesday. “The river begins in the Great Swamp in Ridgefield, travels north for a mile to just below that lowest corner of the Danbury town line and then back south again basically along Route 7. The seven watershed towns are Ridgefield, Redding, Weston, Wilton, Norwalk, New Canaan, and Lewisboro, NY.”
“It’s amazing when you start connecting the dots. And that’s the scary part,” Schnierlein said Thursday. “But GORE-TEX and Teflon, who lives without it today? I mean, it’s in permanent press shirts. L.L. Bean will be out of business. You know, it’s a tough one. But that’s where we are.”