NEWINGTON, CT — A task force appointed to review environmental contamination from PFAS chemicals met for the first time Tuesday, beginning a process to develop a statewide plan to prevent spills and remediate the toxic substance found in thousands of consumer goods.
The risk from per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS, has become urgent since an accidental spill of firefighting foam from a business operating a hanger at Bradley International Airport in early June. Tens of thousands of gallons of the foam entered the Farmington River in Windsor through sewer systems, prompting warnings from state agencies about using the water.
State officials at the meeting at the Department of Transportation headquarters in Newington presented an alarming look at the work ahead to reduce risks to residents, drinking water, and the environment.
“This is an emerging contaminant, these are chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s. The science and the toxicology that is giving us insight into the impacts of these chemicals on human health — that’s really what’s new and emerging over the last few years,” said Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes. “Helping to understand where this is, but also understand the degree of risk to human populations depending on how they’ve been exposed to the chemical and through what medium is an important part of our work.”
Department of Public Health Epidemiologist Meg Harvey said PFAS have been linked to higher cholesterol levels, decreased immune response, slower growth and learning, behavioral effects, and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.
“Unfortunately they are ubiquitous in our environment. We also learned that they resist degradation in the environment and they accumulate in our bodies, so it shouldn’t be surprising that studies done across the world … have found that PFAS is in the blood of nearly every person that has been tested,” Harvey said.
Gov. Ned Lamont established the task force July 8, appointing the commissioners of DEEP and DPH to lead the group. Lamont requested its report by Oct. 1.
“With the current absence of federal regulations governing the exposure, use and disposal of PFAS, the burden is on individual states to take measures to educate their residents about the risks associated with exposure to PFAS and to implement appropriate safeguards. As such, the Connecticut departments of Public Health (DPH) and Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) have begun to lay the groundwork for a state action plan that will require input and assistance from your Department,” Lamont wrote in a letter to state agencies.
The task force began by forming subcommittees to study health, prevention and remediation. Meetings have been scheduled for Aug. 28 and Sept. 18. More information is available at www.ct.gov/ctpfastaskforce.
There are more than 4,500 substances classified as PFAS, and they are used in a staggering number of consumer and industrial products. Fabric softener, pizza boxes, cosmetics, water-resistant clothing, adhesives, non-stick cookware, and food packaging were just a few of the products listed by Shannon Pociu, an environmental analyst at DEEP.
“They do have good uses, it’s just when they get spilled into the environment it’s problematic,” Pociu said.
Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF), a PFAS chemical used in fire suppression, has gotten much of the attention recently because of the June spill at Bradley, but Connecticut Airport Authority Executive Director Kevin Dillon said the Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to use the chemical and has not named any alternatives.
He said the CAA, which operates Bradley and five other airports, has 17 buildings containing PFAS foam systems. Some of them have containment systems, and the agency has been pursuing containment methods at the rest of them, he said.
“We are required to have foam systems, that’s the state building code that requires that,” Dillon said. “We’re also required under state fire codes to keep the drains under those buildings open, so you have these conflicting issues, certainly conflicting with the environmental concerns that exist over these foams.”
“At the end of the day what we’re really looking for in the aviation industry is a recommendation to come out as to what is the best environmentally-friendly foam so we can start working with tenants at the airport to see what’s involved in getting them to convert their systems,” Dillon said.
Firefighting foam is also responsible for contamination of a private well near a regional training center in Willimantic. State officials said a home was connected to the public water supply on Monday after PFAS were discovered in its well water.
Part of the task force goal is to identify potential sites of PFAS contamination, starting with places where AFFF has been used and including industrial sites with uses known to include PFAS in production. Landfills are also a potential source of contamination.
Dykes and DPH Commissioner Renée Coleman-Mitchell said it’s up to the individual states to regulate PFAS because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not have any regulations in place. The EPA does have an action plan adopted in February to “help provide the necessary tools to assist states, tribes, and communities in addressing PFAS,” according to EPA materials.
Several people who attended the task force meeting Tuesday were critical of the state’s communication in the days and weeks following the Windsor leak.
Surrounding states also have been dealing with PFAS problems, where releases into the air from smokestacks have been found to contaminate soil and water. In Maine, a dairy farm’s use of bio-waste as fertilizer led to high PFAS levels in the cows’ milk, said Ray Frigon, assistant director of DEEP’s remediation division.
“It’s pretty astonishing how PFAS can be so mobile in the environment,” said Frigon, who added that the rest of the northeastern states have “heartbreaking” stories to share while Connecticut has been “pretty darn lucky.”