A NWNL NextGen Blog post by Rachel Rebello, Rutgers University, 2019.
This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.
NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships since 2007. Now our NWNL NextGen Blog site will further support student voices. We invite students to email us blog proposals on watershed values, threats and solutions.
Rutgers University sits on the banks of New Jersey’s Raritan River, a NWNL case study watershed. With a Rutgers BS in Biological Sciences, author Rachel Rebello’s connections to the Raritan River Basin and the environment make this a great launch for our first NWNL NextGen Blog post. Her research for this article on the critical and complex story of PFAS foretells a successful career for Rachel in environmental law. [For more PFAS info, see our NWNL Voices of the Rivers transcription of a 2018 talk at Rutgers by Dr. Sandra Goodrow on “PFAS in NJ’s Water.”]
Who Owns the River? Is it you? Is it me? Is it residents, millions of whom get their drinking water from the river?
New Jersey’s Raritan River passes through and/or borders seven counties (Morris, Hunterdon, Somerset, Mercer, Monmouth, Middlesex, and Union) before flowing into the Raritan Bay and subsequently the Atlantic Ocean.1Rutgers University With so many communities depending on the Raritan, one would expect the highest level of care for such an iconic part of New Jersey. And yet, ask any resident about the Raritan River, and she is quickly dismissed as polluted, contaminated, and unclean.
[NWNL Editorial Note: The author’s use of “she” for the river suggests a future discussion of a growing interest in granting the rights of personhood to rivers and ecosystems – an issue which NWNL has followed with interest.]
Many are quick to take for granted or use their local rivers without fully understanding the value of owning those rivers. Ownership demands a commitment to preserving and protecting the river. While perhaps easier said than done, poor ownership has very real and very dangerous consequences.
Consider water contamination in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a rural town upheaved by the actions of the DuPont chemical company. Mark Ruffalo’s new film Dark Waters focuses on DuPont’s ill motivated and unethical disposal of PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) a chemical class with a fluorinated, long carbon chain. The recently released movie sheds light on the dire impacts of poor regulations of water usage and poor policing of “forever chemicals” such as PFAS.2Rich, Nathaniel
PFAS: A Forever Problem?
Beginning in the late 1930s, PFAS were developed for their water- and oil-repellant properties. Their use in various products such as Teflon, waterproof clothing, grease-proof food packaging and firefighting foam have allowed these chemicals to disperse throughout communities worldwide. Unfortunately, their unique characteristics proved toxic and extremely problematic to both public health and the environment.3Jones, Alison PFAS are especially insidious since they are not broken down in the body or in the environment. Thus, PFAS can accumulate to high levels. Per the EPA, “Exposure to PFAS chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy….” Other documented effects include cancer, damage to the liver, weakening of the immune system and changes in thyroid and cholesterol levels. 4United States Environmental Protection Agency
As a result of the efforts by environmental attorney Robert Bilott, who led the West Virginia suit against DuPont, the EPA and other government organizations, two specific PFAS chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) are no longer being produced in the United States. Other PFAS are currently being phased out in collaboration with the EPA and the top eight PFAS manufacturers.5Goodrow, Sandra Despite discontinuation of PFAS, these forever-lasting chemicals persist in the environment, contaminating key rivers such as the Raritan River.
Close To Home
The Raritan River Basin lies at the heart of NJ’s contamination by PFAS, as it contains sites representing “four of the most common PFAS sources: fire training/fire response sites, industrial sites, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants/biosolids.”6The Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council This PFAS contamination poses a threat to both natural ecosystems and the health of New Jersey residents, since the Raritan River is an important drinking-water source and recreational area for many.
A study conducted by the NJDEP on levels of PFAS in New Jersey’s fish, surface water and sediment found PFAS concentration near the Kin-Buc landfill along the Raritan River that measured 49.4ng/L (nanograms/liter). There was also a PFOA concentration of 8.7 ng/L and a PFOS concentration of 6.9 ng/L.7Goodrow, Sandra While these levels fall below the NJDEP’s 14 ng/L and 13 ng/L maximum contaminant levels for drinking water (for PFOA and PFOAS, respectively), the very presence of these chemicals in the Raritan should be cause for alarm.8NJDEP Site Remediation Program
On March 15th, 2019, the NJDEP sent a Statewide PFAS Directive, Information Request and Notice to Insurers of the eight companies responsible for PFAS contamination in NJ. The NJDEP cited the DuPont Parlin Facility as a contributor to PFOA contamination in soil, air, ground water and private wells. From the early 20th century on, this Sayreville NJ plant manufactured camera films and car paint in the Raritan River watershed. 9Sullivan, S.P.
While the full extent of PFAS contamination of the Raritan River specifically is unfortunately currently unknown, this map by the Environmental Working Group demonstrates the overwhelming breadth of New Jersey’s drinking water PFAS contamination problem.
Our Responsibility to the Raritan
With our new awareness of use of modern “forever chemicals” in manufacturing, the question of ownership arises once more. Every NJ resident should be aware of the lethal impacts of today’s new PFAS pollutants and come forward to protect the river and preserve the public health of NJ residents by taking ownership of the Raritan. Responsibility also lies on Raritan River Basin communities to ensure that the EPA monitors the Raritan’s water quality; to hold polluting companies accountable for irresponsible disposal of contaminants; to demand legislators prioritize the health of the river; and to take pride in this critical natural resource so that chemicals like PFAS do not jeopardize our way of life.
As consumers we have the power to spend our money on products that do not hurt the environment. Boycotting and avoiding use of products containing PFOS and PFOA can reduce the incidence of these chemicals entering our homes and our waterways. Items imported into the U.S. from other countries can also contain PFAS. The following items MAY contain PFAS, thus be sure to check product information before purchasing the following:10Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
- Grease-resistant paper
- Fastfood containers
- Microwave popcorn bags
- Nonstick cookware
- Water resistant clothing
- Cleaning products
- Personal care products (shampoo, dental floss, makeup)
We Must Monitor the Raritan River
Organizations such as the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership conduct yearly citizen-science projects that collect data on the health of the river. While these projects do not assess PFAS levels, the EPA uses their data to inform their policy decisions. Data collection also informs ordinary people about the health of the river and its access points. All interested can sign up for free training programs and information on joining the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership. Increases in public engagement in data collection and added pressure for regular and improved contaminant testing of the Raritan River are important steps towards a more comprehensive and thorough understanding of the river.
We Must Raise Awareness
In our own lives, we can spread the word on PFAS. We can educate and mobilize our local community. If enough people grasp the effects of PFAS and the importance of protecting the Raritan River, we can convince representatives and pressure lawmakers to set and enforce high standards of water quality – a critical priority for New Jersey. Already efforts in North Jersey have begun in order to hold chemical companies such as DuPont and Chemours accountable for damages and costs caused by PFAS contamination in the town of Pompton Lakes.11Northeastern University University Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute
Moving forward we must push for more stringent checks on chemical companies so that “replacement chemicals” for PFAS do not create similar challenges. We may have been too late to prevent the spread of PFAS and consequent damages, however we can proactively address future chemical threats before they are released into the environment. Chemicals and potentially dangerous contaminants should not be in our waterways or in our drinking water.
The Raritan River represents just one watershed flowing through New Jersey. However, it is incumbent upon each of us to take ownership of our waterways in our own communities.
“Basic Information on PFAS.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Mar 3, 2016. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas
“Contaminants of Emerging Concern.” NJDEP Site Remediation Program. Mar 13, 2019. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nj.gov/dep/srp/emerging-contaminants/
Goodrow, Sandra. Investigation of Levels of Perfluorinated Compounds in New Jersey Fish, Surface Water, and Sediment. NJDEP Division of Science, Research, and Environmental Health, Jun 8, 2018, accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nj.gov/dep/dsr/publications/Investigation%20of%20Levels%20of%20Perfluorinated%20Compounds%20in%20New%20Jersey%20Fish,%20Surface%20Water,%20and%20Sediment.pdf
Goodrow, Sandra. “Investigation of Levels of Perfluorinated Compounds in New Jersey Fish, Surface Water, and Sediment.” NJDEP Protection Division of Science, Research, and Environmental Health, Jun 8, 2018. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nj.gov/dep/dsr/publications/Investigation%20of%20Levels%20of%20Perfluorinated%20Compounds%20in%20New%20Jersey%20Fish,%20Surface%20Water,%20and%20Sediment.pdf
Jones, Alison. “PFAS – Forever Chemicals in Our Water” for No Water No Life, Dec 10, 2019. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://nowater-nolife.org/pfas-forever-chemicals-in-our-water/
NICKRAPP21. DuPont and Chemours sued by New Jersey over pollution in Pompton Lakes and other sites. Northeastern University University Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, Apr 2nd 2019. Accessed by RR. https://pfasproject.com/2019/04/02/dupont-and-chemours-sued-by-new-jersey-over-pollution-in-pompton-lakes-and-other-sites/
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Apr 2015. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by R.R. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/pfas-exposure.html
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Fact Sheets. The Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, Nov 2017. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://pfas-1.itrcweb.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/pfas_fact_sheet_introductory__11_13_17.pdf
Rutgers Raritan River Initiatives. Rutgers University, Feb 2, 2016. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. http://raritan.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Rutgers-Raritan-River-Initiatives-11-x-17_2018-02-06-Draft.pdf
Rich, Nathaniel. “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” The New York Times Magazine. Jan 6, 2016. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html
Sullivan, S.P., “’We’re taking on DuPont,’ Murphy’s AG says.” NJ Advance Media for NJ.com. Mar 27, 2019. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nj.com/passaic-county/2019/03/were-taking-on-dupont-murphys-ag-says-nj-is-suing-over-decades-of-pollution-at-these-4-sites.html