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First-ever New Jersey data say PFAS in drinking water exceeded safe levels at water systems serving more than half a million people

Overall, either 34-based community systems and 40 non-community systems exceeded the state’s maximum contaminant level for at least one of three chemical compounds in the family known as PFAS.

A Welcome to Willingboro sign on Levitt Parkway in Willingboro. Drinking water from the Willingboro MUA town exceeded limits in 2021 set by New Jersey for a "forever chemical" but the water is safe to drink after officials shut down one of six wells.
A Welcome to Willingboro sign on Levitt Parkway in Willingboro. Drinking water from the Willingboro MUA town exceeded limits in 2021 set by New Jersey for a "forever chemical" but the water is safe to drink after officials shut down one of six wells.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

So-called forever chemicals exceeded maximum levels in 74 separate water systems that provide drinking water to more than half a million people across New Jersey, according to an Inquirer analysis of new data released by the state.

About 6% of the state’s 9.2 million residents are drinking water from systems contaminated by compounds known as PFAS, which have been found harmful to human health and stay in the body for many years.

New Jersey was the first state to set strict standards for types of PFAS, well below federal guidelines. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection released data Tuesday from the first full year of testing.

Overall, 34 community-based systems and 40 non-community systems exceeded the state’s maximum contaminant level for at least one of three chemical compounds within the family of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. A non-community water system serves at least 25 people and can be anything from a school to a yachting club to a car dealership.

That equates to the drinking water of about 524,000 customers in community systems, and 14,000 in non-community systems.

The state released data for those substances — PFOA, PFOS, and PNAS. They have been linked to health issues such as cancer, infertility, and decreased antibody response following vaccination.

PFOA was the most common that appeared in excessive amounts in water systems.

» READ MORE: Biden’s EPA plans to tackle the ‘forever chemicals’ that contaminated drinking water in Philly region and U.S.

Water systems must notify customers if state maximum levels — which are stricter than federal guidance — for any of the compounds are found, and have one year to return to safer levels, either by treating the water or finding an additional source.

Of the 10 communities with the most customers affected, all were in North Jersey with the exception of Willingboro, Burlington County. The Municipal Utility Authority in Willingboro alerted customers in December of the issue.

The authority, which also serves neighboring Westampton Township and has 35,000 customers, informed residents that higher-than-allowable levels of PFOS had been found in one of six wells the system pulls from.

Officials said that the well was immediately shut down and that the water is safe to drink.

» READ MORE: South Jersey town’s drinking water exceeded a ‘forever chemical’ standard

Diallyo Diggs, the executive director of the Willingboro MUA, said Tuesday that the authority is installing a new $5 million system to filter out the compounds, which have been widely used for decades in metal plating and finishing as well as in firefighting foams, stain-resistant coatings for upholstery and carpets, water-resistant outdoor clothing, and greaseproof food packaging.

Major sources of contamination in drinking water include discharges from industrial facilities and proximity to places where firefighting foam was routinely used, such as military bases.

Diggs said the process has been difficult for his small staff of five and the MUA’s customers, some of whom panicked after the initial announcement. Diggs said he personally was fielding up to 50 calls a day.

But he said his true frustration has been at not knowing the source of the contaminant.

“This is something that we’re very interested in trying to find out,” Diggs said. The MUA has asked the state Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Geological Association for help discovering the source.

“But it can be expensive,” Diggs said, noting the cost already being borne for the filtration system, expected to be complete in 2023.

Ultimately, costs will be borne by customers if other sources of money, such as the state and federal government, are not found for both tracking and treatment.

DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said that he shares the frustration and that going after polluting companies is a priority. He estimates water systems need collectively between $500 million and $1 billion to address the issue.

New Jersey is set to get about $1 billion over the next five years for water infrastructure under a bipartisan bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in December. The state is setting meetings with water officials to determine need, and how much of that money would go toward PFAS remediation is unclear. Utilities have other needs such as upgrading storm-water systems and sewage treatment plants.

» READ MORE: New Jersey is getting $1B for water infrastructure, but asks: Will anyone come and get it?

“The folks that put this material into the chain of commerce are responsible,” LaTourette said.

He said officials plan to chase potential polluters through the state’s Spill Act, which prohibits the release of contaminants into the environment and made those who do liable for cleanup.

LaTourette said that while residents might be alarmed at the data, New Jersey was the first state to set aggressive standards well below EPA-suggested levels.

New Jersey allows no more than 13 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFNA, and 14 for PFOA. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has guidance set at 70 for both and has not formally adopted maximum levels. Pennsylvania is in the process of setting its own standards.

“Our standards for drinking water in many respects are higher than most other places in the country,” LaTourette said.

Willingboro, for example, detected 15 parts per trillion based on a running annual average for PFOA. Though Diggs said the water is safe, the MUA won’t technically be listed as back in compliance until the well is fixed.

Also in Burlington County, the New Lisbon Developmental Center and Dredge Harbor Yacht Club in Delran, both non-community water systems, exceeded levels for at least one contaminant. New Lisbon is back in compliance.

In Camden County, the Bellmawr and Gloucester City water departments were found in excess of the regulation, though both are back in compliance.

And, in Gloucester County, National Park and Woodbury water departments exceeded levels, as did Xylem Dewatering Inc., a non-community system. Xylem is back in compliance.

Kati Angarone, the DEP’s associate commissioner for science and policy, said the state began its aggressive stance years ago after a nationwide sampling showed New Jersey had a higher occurrence of some of the compounds than other states.

Of particular concern to parents might be the schools that showed up in the list, though none are in South Jersey. Infants and children consume more water for their body weight than older people do, so their exposure may be higher, and they might be more sensitive to the effects of PFAS.