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New federal regulations could lead to cleaner water in Connecticut

A worker stands in front of a water filtration system at a water treatment plant.
Chris Carlson
A worker stands in front of a water filtration system at a water treatment plant.

PFAS chemicals, also known as forever chemicals, are found in almost everything. When consumed in high amounts, they cause a range of diseases and cancers. New regulations from the federal government could require Connecticut water treatment facilities to make million dollar upgrades to remove the chemicals from public water supplies.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Andrew Brown to discuss his article, “CT’s public water systems may soon need to treat for PFAS,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.  

WSHU: What are PFAS chemicals? And why do Connecticut public water systems need to deal with them now?

AB: PFAS chemicals are a family of chemicals that started to be produced back in the 1940s and 1950s. They are a type of chemical that was used in a lot of industrial manufacturing processes. They helped to make Teflon cookware back in the day, they helped to make Gore-Tex clothing that is waterproof. They help to make stain resistant carpets. So they are a type of industrial chemical that was widely used for a long time and still is. We are now talking about them because 50 to 60 years out from whenever these chemicals were invented, they have shown up throughout the environment, throughout the world.

They have shown up in soil and groundwater, rivers and ponds, and now drinking water here in the United States. There has been discussion about what the health implications of these chemicals could be for humans, you know, going back to the early 2000s. But the EPA just last month for the first time announced that they were going to set an enforceable limit on how much of these chemicals can be in public drinking water systems. And that will in turn force public water providers to either treat for the chemicals if they're found, or to replace the sources of water that they're using. So it's a very big step.

WSHU: Now, you say that some Connecticut water systems have found high levels of PFAS, way higher than what the EPA is recommended in the water systems. How high has it been? And what can they do to try and mitigate that?

AB: So since 2016, the EPA had a recommended limit for drinking water systems, they recommended that any water system that had more than what is called 70 parts per trillion, which is a very minute testing capacity for these chemicals. Anything above 70 parts per trillion was supposed to be, you know, treated. That was the EPA recommendation. So for a long time, water utilities in Connecticut and across the country went with that limit. They kind of told the public if it was above that limit, that's when they started waving the red flag.

Since then, there have been a lot of toxicology studies and epidemiological studies that show that even lower levels of the chemical over a lifetime may not be good for human health, there's risk of cancers and developmental issues, immunological problems if you build up enough of these chemicals in your bloodstream, and so the new EPA regulation dropped the level from 70 parts per trillion to four parts per trillion, which is a huge change. And so systems in Connecticut that thought they were safe, that they had proper drinking water, are waking up now and realizing that there are levels of these chemicals in their drinking water that will require them to treat for the substances.

There are different ways to treat these. There's technology out there that's been used in different parts of the country where there's been extremely high levels of these chemicals found in public drinking water systems. And that technology entails using what is known as a granulated carbon, or an ion exchange resin. Far above my ability to fully explain. But you run your drinking water through these large filters that contain the substances and the PFAS is pulled out and attaches itself to either the carbon or the resin.

WSHU: How expensive are those chemicals?

AB: Those systems are not normal, they're not the traditional water treatment technology that you will currently find in a public treatment plant. Treatment plants right now, they treat for organic substances, waterborne viruses and stuff like that, to make sure that people aren't ingesting things that would make them immediately ill, they try to treat for lead and other contaminants like that. All of those systems don't take care of PFAS. So there's all this treatment technology in our public water systems that currently doesn't even remove the chemicals.

WSHU: This will require millions of dollars in new technology and infrastructure upgrades at water treatment plants in order to pull these chemicals out of the water systems. Where are they going to get the money to do this? Is it going to fall on ratepayers?

AB: I talked to the Connecticut public health commissioner about all of this. So currently, there are millions of dollars available for these infrastructure upgrades through the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed by Congress a year and a half ago, two years ago. So there is a stream of money coming over the next several years that will help to pay for some of these upgrades at water treatment facilities. They will apply through the state government for these grants to help fund that infrastructure.

WSHU: The commissioner said Connecticut is in a better position than most states to take advantage of this. Why?

AB: So our public health commissioner, her argument was that there's been so much attention on PFAS in Connecticut in the past couple of years. And her health department has been signaling to public utilities, water utilities that this regulation was likely coming. The larger public utilities have already considered or are considering what it would take to treat their water. Now, that being said, many of our neighbors in Massachusetts and Maine, Vermont, New Jersey, had enforceable limits that they enacted through the state governments within the past couple of years. So they're actually ahead of us in the Northeast. But that being said, I think Connecticut is a few steps ahead of much of the rest of the country.

WSHU: Bottom line, we're going to have to put the systems in to treat this. And a lot of it will be borne by federal funds. Will ratepayers still have to see an increase in rates?

AB: The public health commissioner in Connecticut made it very clear that there's a lot of money available, she did not want to make a guarantee that that will cover every cost. So yes, I think it is fair to say that unless the state appropriates more money, or the federal government continues to appropriate more money, there will be some public water systems that will have to rely on customer billing in order to cover that infrastructure as well as state funding.

WSHU: Is there any legislation being worked on to try and get some more state funding for this?

AB: There was a bill that passed out of the Environment Committee this session in the state house, that would create a I think it was like a $25 million fund to start off with to help towns and cities treat PFAS contaminated water. That started out as being targeted towards towns that rely on private wells that homeowners actually own. But I could see that being adapted if state lawmakers see a need for public water systems and investment there. So yes, this is a consideration that state lawmakers are dealing with as well.

WSHU: And for those of us who have been drinking this water for quite a while now, what are the long-term consequences of that?

AB: I don't want to be an alarmist here. The health implications that have been studied, all of the health implications are largely tied to how much of these chemicals you have in your bloodstream. It takes a large amount of the chemicals to start tying or making those connections to the negative health effects.

The biggest concern nationally and kind of where these health studies came from is there were workers in factories who had much higher concentrations than the average person drinking PFAS through, you know, small amounts of these chemicals. Through the public water supply, there is no immediate health risk. That being said, the EPA is setting this limit because they want to avoid people consuming these chemicals over a lifetime and and having 40 years down the road, some negative health outcomes. There are connections in high amounts to you know testicular cancer, kidney cancers, immunological problems, hypertension in pregnant women. So, again, science is kind of evolving because for most of their history the chemicals were not properly regulated and analyzed.

WSHU: So, basically, it's not good for you.

AB: No, I don't think anybody would argue that if you're consuming a significant amount of these chemicals over a lifetime that it is a positive health effect for you.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.