Drinking Water—What’s Next?

Water quality has been thrust into the national spotlight in recent years. Between the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, King Gold Mine spill in Colorado, Yellowstone River oil spill in Montana and the Elk River spill in West Virginia, Americans are becoming more and more conscious of the quality of their drinking water. With public interest increasing, state legislatures are taking notice as well. From 2015 to 2016, there was an increase of almost 300% in the volume of drinking water-related legislation in state legislatures.

On May 19, the U.S. EPA issued a Health Advisory on perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), making the latest news item an issue that first came to light in 1999, when the EPA received information that PFOA was present in blood samples of Americans on a mass scale. At that time EPA began investigating these compounds. The Health Advisory set a lifetime exposure level for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for individuals. It is important to note that the Health Advisory is not enforceable and is not considered a regulation, but rather serves to “provide technical information to states agencies and other public health officials on health effects, analytical methodologies, and treatment technologies associated with drinking water contamination,” according to the EPA.


PFCs are manufactured chemical compounds that are often found in carpeting, outdoor clothing, upholstery, food packaging, fire-fighting foams, metal plating and cookware. PFCs are resistant to phenomena such as heat, water and oil. PFCs resist natural decay, but will eventually decompose. They have been found in blood samples of the American population at very low levels and several studies have asserted potential links between PFCs and health issues resulting from exposure to high concentrations of PFCs. Possible health concerns related to exposure to PFCs include developmental, neurological, endocrine, metabolic, immunological and reproductive issues—though any definitive link remains inconclusive.

PFOS and PFOA are what the EPA has described as “emerging contaminants.” PFOS and PFOA have been detected in surface water, wastewater treatment discharge and may also be released from the use of fire-fighting foam. The EPA has found that PFOS and PFOA have been released in the air, water and soil during the manufacturing process. In 2006, the EPA invited the major fluoropolymer and telomere manufacturers to participate in a voluntary stewardship program, with a goal to achieve a reduction in the emissions of PFOA. PFOS is no longer manufactured in the United States. PFOA, however, is still manufactured in the United States and remains present in many industrial products. The EPA has stated that “while consumer products and food are a large source of exposure to these chemicals for most people, drinking water can be an additional source in the small percentage of communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies.”

State Involvement

In 2014, the water supply in Hoosick Falls, New York was found to have elevated levels of PFOA. In response, Region 2 of the EPA has set an Advisory Level of 100 ppt. Tests indicated that more than 100 wells near Bennington, Vermont were above 20 ppt. In response, the Vermont Department of Health has established a health level of 20 ppt. In neighboring New Hampshire, the town of Merrimack was found to have its water contaminated at levels between 21-27 ppt in several locations. New Hampshire has advised residents to not use their drinking water if PFOA levels are above 100 ppt. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers have called for regulatory action regarding recent contaminations at Horsham and Warminster. In March 2016, Governor Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and Governor Peter Shumlin (D-VT) wrote to the EPA in an open letter urging federal action on PFOA stating that it “is not a state problem or a regional problem – it’s a national problem that requires federal guidelines and a consistent, science-based approach.”

The EPA’s long-awaited Health Advisory has provided some clarity in terms of standards, but states have been—and will continue to be—responding independently to this issue. According to Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, the Executive Director and General Counsel for the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), an association of state environmental officials, “our member agencies now move to the front lines in responding to public inquiries regarding these advisories. We anticipate public concern to be real and immediate.” ECOS, which facilitates information sharing among states, will be central to helping state officials share best practices and experiences in dealing with this issue. 

Echoing Ms. Dunn’s sentiments, this Health Advisory has laid the groundwork for states to take further action. From Governors, to state legislators to state regulatory officials, each state will continue to find ways to deal with this issue as it affects the resources within their own borders, as well as their geographic neighbors.