Public water utilities throughout Connecticut may soon be required to install millions of dollars in new treatment technology to help remove “forever chemicals” from the tap water that tens of thousands of people drink every day.
Those upgrades will be necessary to comply with a new federal regulation that seeks to limit people’s exposure to the chemicals, known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS for short.
The newly proposed rule would, for the first time, establish an enforceable limit on some of the most common types of PFAS in public drinking water systems — a step that environmental advocates have been demanding for years.
Environmental studies have shown that PFAS contamination is prevalent throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
Nearly every American has some level of the compounds in their bodies. The chemicals have been found in rivers, ponds, soil, aquifers and many drinking water systems throughout the country.
That includes traces that have been found in some of Connecticut’s largest public water systems.
The chemical properties of PFAS made them useful in many manufacturing processes. The man-made compounds were used for decades to produce things like nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant carpets and an industrial fire fighting foam that was used at airports, military bases and local fire stations.
PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the environment, and the compounds are known to build up in people’s blood over time.
The chemicals don’t pose an immediate risk for people who ingest limited amounts through drinking water. But public health officials are still concerned about the long-term health implications for communities that frequently consume even small amounts of the chemicals over a lifetime.
Epidemiological studies and toxicology research found potential links between the compounds and a number of negative health outcomes, including developmental issues, immunological problems, thyroid disorders and kidney or testicular cancers.
Those human health concerns prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish advisory limits for several types of PFAS in drinking water systems in 2016.
But those limits were only recommendations. They did not require public water utilities to treat for the chemicals, even if testing found significant levels of the compounds in the water.
That is now expected to change.
EPA officials announced on March 14 that the federal agency plans to implement mandatory enforcement levels for six different types of PFAS that have been found in public drinking water systems.
That regulatory announcement is a big step for most of the country, including Connecticut.
Up to this point, only a handful of states, including Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Vermont, enacted enforceable limits for the chemicals in their public water systems.
The EPA’s newly proposed regulation would be mandatory nationwide, and it will be even stricter than most of the existing state laws. The regulation does not apply to the 322,000 private drinking water wells in Connecticut.
The two most common types of PFAS that will be regulated under the federal rule are chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS. The EPA said it will require public water systems to add new filtration technology or find different sources of water if those chemicals are found in concentrations above 4 parts per trillion.
For perspective, 1 part per trillion is comparable to finding a single drop of the chemicals in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
That extremely low limit is being put in place in order to protect people from a lifetime of exposure to the chemicals. But it will mean that many public water utilities that previously thought their water was acceptable will now need to alter their treatment plants to deal with the chemicals.
Christopher Bellona, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines, said the new EPA regulation marks a “generational shift” in water treatment in the United States.
The fact that PFAS contamination is so widespread throughout the country, Bellona said, means that many public water systems will soon be required to adapt to the new rules.
“It’s a very challenging problem, and it just seems to be getting more complicated as time goes on,” Bellona said.
What it means for Connecticut
It’s unclear at this point how many public water systems in Connecticut are supplying tap water that contains PFAS levels above 4 parts per trillion.
That’s because the chemical sampling that has been conducted at public water systems in recent years was voluntary.
The Connecticut Department of Public Health, like agencies in most other states, only has an advisory limit in place. That public health advisory started at 70 parts per trillion in 2016 and was reduced last year to as little as 10 parts per trillion.
But it remained simply a recommendation.
That meant the operators of public water systems were not required to regularly report testing results for the chemicals like they do for mercury, arsenic, lead and a host of other regulated contaminants.
State officials encouraged the public systems to conduct sampling and to voluntarily share the results with the state and their water customers. But not all of them did that.
There is no mention of PFAS testing results in the most recent water quality reports for the Waterbury Water Department, the Danbury Water Department, the New Britain Water Department, the Meriden Water Division, the Bristol Water Department, the Middletown Water Department, the Southington Water Department or the Metropolitan District Commission, which supplies water to roughly 390,000 people in Hartford and 11 other surrounding communities.
But Connecticut isn't immune to the problem.
Some of the state's largest drinking water providers have publicly shared PFAS testing results in recent years, and those results indicate that those utilities have pockets of PFAS contamination that will need to be managed once the new federal rule goes into effect.
The Regional Water Authority, which supplies 418,000 people in and around New Haven, found PFAS concentrations just above 4 parts per trillion at some of its wells in Cheshire, which supplies roughly 3% to 5% of the utility's water.
Aquarion, an investor-owned utility that delivers water to an estimated 695,000 people in Connecticut, reported PFAS concentrations above 4 parts per trillion in water sources that supply parts of Darien, Simsbury, Danbury, Woodbury, New Fairfield, New Milford, Greenwich, Newtown and a number of its other local systems.
Connecticut Water, another investor-owned utility that serves more than 243,000 people in the state, documented similar findings at its systems in Avon, Vernon, Brooklyn, Guilford and several other locations.
And the Manchester Water Department, which serves more than 51,000 people in that town, recently reported PFAS levels as high as 21 parts per trillion at one of its water intake locations.
'A top priority'
Manisha Juthani, Connecticut's public health commissioner, said her agency and Gov. Ned Lamont's administration are closely monitoring the most recent testing results from the state's public water systems.
“This has been a top priority for this governor, for this administration,” Juthani told the Connecticut Mirror.
Juthani, who was appointed as the state's top health official in 2021, acknowledged that Connecticut does not have up-to-date testing results for every community water system in the state. But she estimated that roughly 65% of the systems are reporting PFAS results voluntarily to DPH, even if they are not sharing the results publicly with their customers yet.
About 37% of those that reported have levels above the 4 parts per trillion threshold, she said. She would not identify which systems those are.
According to Juthani, federal officials recently told her agency the new limits for PFAS in drinking water could be rolled out over a three-year period to give state regulators and public water utilities enough time to comply with the regulations.
Connecticut is likely in a better position than many other states, Juthani argued, because of the public attention PFAS has received in recent years. She said DPH has also been in communication with the public water providers about the potential for additional regulations surrounding the chemicals.
“I do think we are ahead of the game, but we really won’t know the full scope of the problem until we have the data,” Juthani said.
Officials with Aquarion and Connecticut Water, the two investor-owed utilities in the state, said they recognize the need for enforceable limits on PFAS, which is why they've began voluntarily testing for the chemicals several years ago and publicly disclosing the results to their customers.
"Connecticut Water supports the EPA’s and Connecticut Department of Public Health’s efforts to protect the quality of drinking water, and it will continue to closely monitor EPA’s proposal and will invest in treatment systems or take other actions as needed, to remain in compliance with water quality standards," Daniel Meaney, the company's spokesman, wrote in a statement.
Aquarion also noted the significant cost that will be required to bring all of the public water systems into compliance with the new rules.
"While many details remain to be finalized, it is clear that sustained capital investment in infrastructure and a long-term commitment to treatment will be needed to both comply with the proposed regulatory standards and ensure the safety of customers’ water," the company wrote in a statement.
Peter Fazekas, a spokesman for Aquarion, said the company does not yet have an estimate of how much it will cost to reduce PFAS in its drinking water systems. But he provided an example of a recent upgrade the company completed at one of its water treatment plants in New Hampshire.
That upgrade, which added an advanced filtration system to a single well, cost the company $1.7 million to complete, Fazekas said, and that doesn't include the cost of ongoing maintenance to keep the system working.
There is technology available that is capable of filtering PFAS out of public drinking water supplies, and those systems are already in commercial use in other parts of the country where much higher concentrations of the chemicals polluted public drinking water.
Bellona, the environmental engineering professor from Colorado, said the two most common treatment systems for PFAS require water to be run through large filters containing "granular activated carbon" or "ion exchange resins."
Both of those substances, he said, absorb PFAS as the drinking water passes through the filters. But both systems are rather expensive, Bellona said, and they are far different from other steps that traditionally take place at water treatment plants.
"I would consider using absorbents to treat water to be an advanced treatment process," he said. "It's not simple."
Bellona has firsthand experience in putting those advanced processes to use. He personally helped the public water utility in Fountain, Colo., test a carbon filtration system to remove PFAS from that city's water supply in 2017.
Those trials ultimately led to the city building a new multimillion-dollar treatment plant to permanently clean its drinking water. That project was financed, however, by the U.S. Air Force, which was responsible for polluting the city's water wells with the industrial firefighting foam.
The public water systems in Connecticut are not going to have that source of money available to them. But state health officials said there is likely to be other federal money available.
The federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which was passed in late 2021, included millions of dollars in funding for PFAS treatment at public water systems.
Connecticut health officials said there is roughly $18.8 million available this year through the state's Drinking Water State Revolving Fund that can be used to fund PFAS treatment projects. And state officials said more funding is likely to become available in the coming years.
Juthani said that federal investment will help to ensure that public water systems can comply with the new federal regulations without charging customers for the entire cost.
“There are several streams of funding from the federal government coming to the state that our water systems are aware of,” Juthani said. “We’ve been in communication with them for a long time that this money is coming. It’s part of our intended use plan, and that’s going to be there and available for the next several years.”