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Virginia Dept. of Health plans to test small, disadvantaged communities for PFAS

PFAS, often used in water-resistant gear, also find their way into drinking water and human bodies. (Photo by CasarsaGuru via Getty Images)
CasarsaGuru via Getty Images
PFAS, often used in water-resistant gear, also find their way into drinking water and human bodies. (Photo by CasarsaGuru via Getty Images)

The new testing comes as part of the federal government passing final PFAS rules in April.

The Virginia Department of Health is continuing its forever hunt to find the amount of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, present in the state by testing for them in water systems serving small and disadvantaged communities.

“We suspect they haven’t done PFAS monitoring yet, and so they don’t know what they’re up against,” said Robert Edelman, director of technical services at the office of drinking water at VDH, in an interview. “And certainly we don’t either.”

PFAS are the thousands of different chemicals used in several household products ranging from winter jackets to cookware to firefighting foam because of the tight chemical bond they possess to repel water and heat.

Because of that tight bond, the chemicals are nearly impossible to break down, meaning they end up in landfills, can leak into groundwater, and then get soaked up by clouds that send them back into the environment and food sources through rainfall.

The new testing comes as part of the federal government passing final PFAS rules in April to enforce a 4 or 10 parts per trillion maximum contaminant levels, or MCL, for a limited number of types of PFAS. One part per trillion is the equivalent of 1 drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The new standards will reduce PFAS exposure for roughly 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said when announcing the new rules this spring.

The chemicals have been linked to serious health problems including cancers and reproductive and fetal development issues.

When issuing the rules, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created a grace-period for public water systems to monitor levels of PFAS chemicals until 2027 before needing to treat any exceedances of the MCLs in drinking water starting in 2029.

Types of systemsNationwide and in Virginia, public water systems, or waterworks, are defined as those serving 25 people or more a day for 60 days or more a year.

In Virginia, there are 1,072 community systems that serve towns, cities and counties and about 500 non-transient, non-community systems that serve schools or an office building where people return day-after-day but don’t live.

There’s also 1,245 transient non-community systems, which serve restaurants, a campground or a highway rest-stop that sees groups of people coming and going rather than live in or repeatedly return to the same area.

The community systems and non-transient, non-community systems are subject to the new rules. The transient, non-community systems do not need to follow the rules, with the thinking that the same people aren’t exposed to the potential contaminants from the same system over and over again.

Private wells, which are unregulated in Virginia and primarily serve individuals’ homes in rural, mountainous areas, are not subject to the rules either.

Previous testingIn addition to some sampling the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has done, the Virginia Department of Health conducted two phases of testing across Virginia’s publicly regulated water systems.

The first of those happened in 2021 with 45 of 50 systems that VDH reached out to agreeing to participate. The effort targeted larger systems serving about 5.25 million of the state’s about 7 million population, Elemen said.

Phase II, in 2022 and 2023, sampled 274 systems which were smaller community systems, and a handful of non-transient, non-community systems that were near areas that included known sources of PFAS, such as large airports that may use firefighting foam with the chemicals, and unlined landfills.

As a result of that sampling, PFAS was found to be present in the Roanoke, Newport News and Potomac

New testingNow, in Phase III, VDH is sampling small and disadvantaged communities, which include the “vast majority” of systems in Virginia, Edelman said. These systems include those serving populations of less than 10,000 and are deemed burdened under the EPA’s Environmental Justice screening tool.

The effort is expected to collect about 400 samples in all areas of the state over the next two or three months, Edelman said.

“If you consider that we have over a thousand community water systems, 400 samples isn’t enough to get the job done,” said Edelman. “But it’s the next step in making progress identifying the PFAS levels across the state…it’s a doable step.”

Some of the about $27 million the state received from the federal government for 2022 and 2023, and $13.5 million this year can be tapped into to offset the costs of testing, Edelman said at a recent waterworks advisory committee meeting.

More testingThe testing is all seen as a way to get a handle on understanding where PFAS are in Virginia before beginning to figure out where the substances are coming from.

Chris Pomeroy, attorney for the Virginia Municipal Drinking Water Association that represents waterworks that serve about 3 in every 4 Virginians, said in a statement that the “VMDWA is pleased to know that VDH intends to assist small disadvantaged communities with PFAS testing, which will be helpful for determining where PFAS reduction is needed.”

The testing of the smaller systems “absolutely needs to be done,” added Betsy Nichols, vice president of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, a local environmental group, since those might be in rural areas that are more likely to use biosolids from wastewater treatment plants as fertilizer.

The level of exposure in private wells also needs to be understood, Nichols added. She suggested the state could set up a grant program to help users of those systems conduct the testing.

It costs her group about $90 to $100 to conduct small tests, which require strict protocols for handling and storage because of the ease of outside particles contaminating the test subjects, Nichols said.

“Maybe [the wells] are all fine, but you don’t really know until you test,” Nichols said.

Also of importance is knowing where PFAS is coming from, such as carpet manufacturers, metal finishers and pesticides that use them, in order to “shut off the tap” and begin using alternatives, Nichols said.

“If we don’t start moving more quickly, we won’t have made all the changes that are needed to be implemented when that deadline hits,” Nichols said.

This past session Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a bill setting up a process for the Department of Environmental Quality to identify “significant” sources of PFAS. The bill passed despite some advocates initially wanting a more direct report from those using the chemicals to identify how they were introduced into the environment in the first place.

VDH will also be embarking on a $500,000 study, due to the General Assembly by Dec. 1, to determine how much it may cost to have waterworks make upgrades to treat PFAS, which could cost millions.

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