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As feds plan to tighten regulations, finding PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ will require more money and expertise

Firefighting foam containing PFAS spilled into the Farmington River in 2019.
Connecticut Department Of Energy And Environmental Protection
Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
Firefighting foam containing PFAS spilled into the Farmington River in 2019.

PFAS chemicals are everywhere — woven into the fabrics of modern life as components of carpeting, clothing and cosmetics. They’re also in cookware, food packaging, drinking water and personal hygiene products.

This family of long-lasting “forever chemicals” can accumulate over time in the body and may lead to certain cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In fact, PFAS are so ubiquitous they make it exceptionally difficult for environmental labs to get a clean sample.

“Samplers would say, ‘Jeez, what do you want us to do, sample naked?’” said Shannon Pociu, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Pociu said PFAS aren’t anything to joke about, but, “I mean that’s almost where you’re at. You want to be sure you’re not going to unintentionally contaminate your sample.”

The federal government announced Monday it plans to tighten regulations around an emergent family of contaminants called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or “PFAS.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said his agency will set enforceable drinking water limits on PFAS, which could mean environmental labs will soon get a lot more requests for PFAS testing.

But Michael Beckerich, president and CEO of York Analytical Laboratories, which does environmental testing in Connecticut and New York, said the orders have already been coming in — and not just from the government. Businesses, builders and homeowners are all looking for PFAS.

“In the last two years, PFAS went from zero to over 10 percent of our business. And we expect that to continue to grow,” Beckerich said.

But that boom in business comes at a cost. Beckerich said testing for PFAS is really expensive when compared to testing for more standard contaminants.

“A lead-in-water test, which we do thousands a month, is $15, $16. A test for PFAS in water is around $350, $400, depending on what they’re looking for,” he said.

That price tag is made up of two main things: materials and expertise.

Hunting for PFAS is hard. Results are measured in parts per trillion. To visualize that, imagine three droplets in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Not surprisingly, detecting that requires careful chemistry and costly gear.

“It is by far the biggest capital investment that the lab has done for one specific analysis,” said Jeffrey Smith, director of operations for Complete Environmental Testing in Stratford.

He said his company recently spent about $350,000 on a machine to look for PFAS.

But as demand for testing goes up, doing the work in-house will ultimately save time and money, he said.

“We kind of saw the writing on the wall. That there was a future for this testing and there was a niche for it in our market,” Smith said. “It just seems that it’s something that’s going to become a standard test.”

Connecticut already has guidelines for PFAS in drinking water. Other New England states, including Massachusetts, and Vermont, have already adopted stricter standards.

Many states are actively hunting for PFAS. To date, Connecticut has identified about 2,400 sites as potentially contaminated, and it’s testing dozens of publicly owned water treatment plants.

“In areas where there may have been releases, we want to know, have the chemicals gotten into soil and groundwater?” DEEP’s Pociu said. “We’re interested in drinking water wells, reservoirs and rivers and streams.”

As federal and state playbooks for detecting PFAS evolve, it’s likely the chemicals will turn up a lot because “it’s in everything,” said Kristen Amodeo, an environmental consultant who has sampled for PFAS in Michigan, New York and Connecticut.

“It is in your household products. It’s in your carpet. It’s in your clothing. It’s in your food. It’s in your hygiene products, it’s in your makeup, it’s in your sunscreen,” she said.

That means samplers work with caution to avoid cross contamination in the field.

“Prior to going out there … depending on what clothes I’m wearing, I need to wash them and then hang dry them,” she said. “It’s in your dryer sheets, so you don’t want to put them in the dryer. You need to avoid, pretty much, showering. Brushing your teeth. Washing your face.”

Pociu, with the DEEP, said demand for PFAS testing will go up.

That means more business for labs, but it also means more questions for towns about who, ultimately, will pick up the bill for these costly tests.

“There will be a lot more sampling done not only in Connecticut, but throughout the U.S.,” Pociu said. “It won’t be cheap.”

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.