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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

In Significant Reduction, EPA Sets Health Advisory For PFOA At 70 Parts Per Trillion

Howard Weiss-Tisman
The former Chemfab plant in North Benington is the suspected souce of PFOA contamination in the area. The EPA has updated their health advisory for PFOA.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued an updated health advisory for the suspected carcinogen PFOA.

And Vermont's health commissioner says the new EPA health advisory for the chemical will force the state to look at its own advisory level for the contaminant.

The new national health standard has been set at 70 parts per trillion is still above Vermont's level of 20 parts per trillion.

The EPA announced last year that it was looking at its health advisory level of 400 parts per trillion for PFOA, which was established in 2009.

After the chemical was detected in North Bennington, the state of Vermont set a more conservative level based on the dangers posed to young children.

Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen says the state will now use the reports that were just released by the EPA to assess Vermont's advisory level.

"Basically we have to evaluate over 750 pages of  studies," Chen says. "Then we have to do our own calculations. After that then we'll be able to comment more significantly on the EPA level itself, but we certainly welcome its release."

The EPA says its new standard is based on studies done on rats and mice, as well as on epidemiological studies of human populations.

The most recent peer reviewed studies indicate that exposure to PFOA may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants.

Long term exposure may also lead to certain cancers. It could also affect the liver, or the thyroid and cause cholesterol changes.

The new national health standard has been set at 70 parts per trillion, above Vermont's level of 20 parts per trillion.

Chen says the updated EPA level shines a new light on how the chemical can affect the body.

"More than new studies, it's different interpretations of some of the of old studies," he says. "The 2014 draft advisory looked at liver toxicity. This current advisory really points to developmental abnormalities, and so therefore we have to look at a whole different pathway, whether it be  pregnant  women and lactating women, for which the fetus and the children can be exposed to this chemical."

The suspected source of the contamination in North Bennnington is the former Chemfab plant, which was owned by the company Saint-Gobain before the plant was closed in 2002.

More than 150 private wells in North Bennington have elevated levels of PFOA, with some as high as 2,000 parts per trillion.

Most of those contaminated wells have levels of PFOA above 100 parts per trillion.
Saint-Gobain has been working closely with the state, providing bottled water and carbon filters. But the company also sued the state over its low advisory level of 20 parts per trillion.

In a prepared statement a company spokeswoman said: "The new guidance from the U.S. EPA will enable state and local governments to make consistent decisions concerning the levels of PFOA in drinking water."

The EPA Thursday lowered its advisory level, but the federal agency did not go as far as to establish national drinking water regulations.

The health advisory sets a baseline for water consumed over time.

But the agency's action is not enforceable, though the EPA says it is evaluating PFOA as a drinking water contaminant.

To regulate a contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA must find that it has adverse health effects,  that it occurs frequently at levels of public health concern, and that there is a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for people served by public water systems.

“Today’s EPA announcement on PFOA is exactly why Senator Sanders has long fought to allow states to go above and beyond federal minimum safety standards," Sanders spokesman Daniel McLean said. "He strongly believes the final Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that is being negotiated must treat federal chemical regulations as a floor -- not a ceiling.  Federal law must not preempt states like Vermont from protecting the health and safety of its people.”

David Andrews, from Environmental Working Group, says that while the new EPA standard is a step in the right direction, it still falls far short on protecting human health.

"The new, lower health advisory levels for PFOA in drinking water remain much higher than what the newest independent studies indicate would protect human health with an adequate margin of safety," Andrews said. "In addition the new advisory level is not a legally enforceable limit. EPA must act more quickly to set an enforceable standard that will fully protect Americans' health."

Between 2000 and 2002 PFOA was voluntarily phased out of production by manufacturer 3M, and the chemical was completely phased out by 2015.