Dozens of New Jersey water systems that serve a combined 500,000 residents exceeded new stringent standards last year for PFAS, a family of chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other ailments, environmental officials said Tuesday.
Higher levels were found in 34 community water systems, including several in Bergen County that now face millions of dollars in expenses to buy filtering equipment. The largest water provider that exceeded the standard was the Middlesex Water Company, which serves 233,000 people.
State officials are still formulating a statewide cleanup plan, but a lot of that hinges on lawsuits filed by the Murphy administration against DuPont, 3M and other companies that used PFAS chemicals for decades in manufacturing everyday products such as nonstick pans, polishes, waxes, paints and cleaning products.
"The folks that put this material into the chain of commerce are responsible," Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, said in a conference call with reporters.
The new data, which can be found at the DEP's Water Watch database, comes after New Jersey in 2020 formally adopted some of the most stringent drinking water standards in the nation for two PFAS chemicals: PFOA and PFOS.
PFOA has been a key ingredient for nonstick cookware, and PFOS was used in metal plating and firefighting foam. They are known as "forever chemicals" because they are very difficult to break down.
The chemicals have been found throughout the world, from the fish in the Delaware River to polar bears in the Arctic. In 2019 it was estimated that one in five New Jerseyans received water with at least trace amounts of PFAS chemicals.
Water systems across New Jersey found that they were exceeding the new standard during their annual testing in 2021. Most were smaller, well-based systems. Notices have gone out to hundreds of thousands of residents, causing concern in many towns.
Many of the 34 community water systems are very small, serving only a few hundred people. But 19 serve at least one town or even several, such as Ridgewood Water, which provides water to Glen Rock, Midland Park, Wyckoff and its namesake.
Now water utilities are looking at costly upgrades to reduce the presence of the chemicals before they reach a homeowner's tap.
Garfield officials said it would cost the city $2 million for new filtering equipment after notices went out last summer over PFAS levels. Ridgewood spent at least $3.5 million in 2019 to install carbon filters to deal with elevated levels.
Those kinds of costs prompted voters in Allendale to approve the sale of their municipal water system in November to Suez, the multinational corporation that operates the Oradell Reservoir.
In West Milford, the Passaic Valley Water Commission has been testing filters in an attempt to reduce levels in one area.
Granulated carbon filters and other methods like ion exchanges appear to be successful at lowering PFAS levels.
Suez has spent almost $5 million through 2021 on PFAS treatment systems at its smaller drinking water systems. Systems installed in West Milford neighborhoods resulted in undetectable levels of PFAS and all parts of its system are in compliance with DEP standards, said Debra Vial, a company spokeswoman.
Suez plans to spend another $25 million into 2023 to complete filtration projects in Highlands communities, Franklin Lakes and eventually Allendale, when the sale goes through.
"This issue was one of the main reasons the borough decided to sell the system," Vial said. "Standalone systems don’t always have the expertise or the funding needed to build these treatment systems."
Larger utilities with exceedances
Some of the largest water utilities that exceeded the state PFAS standard in 2021:
Middlesex Water Company
Note: DEP data says Bellmawr and Gloucester City are now in compliance with state standards.
Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic's impact on New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Drinking water in 34 NJ towns has high levels of PFAS chemicals