DEQ proposes permanent regulations for “forever chemicals” PFOA, PFOS

The Cape Fear River is contaminated with PFAS, some of it from groundwater seeps originating at the Chemours plant in north Bladen County. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

North Carolina could enact stronger environmental standards for one type of PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds, toxic chemicals that are widespread not only statewide but throughout the world.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality is proposing a maximum concentration of 0.07 parts per billion for PFOS and for PFOA, known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the human body and the environment for decades.

They are used in myriad products, including Teflon cookware, floor waxes, water- and stain-resistant upholstery and clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams.

Exposure to these compounds, of which there are thousands, has been linked to several types of cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, and thyroid disorders.

DEQ will discuss the proposed standard at a meeting of the Environmental Management Commission’s Groundwater and Waste Committee today at 3 p.m. The meeting will be held in the Ground Floor Hearing Room of the Archdale Building, 512 N. Salisbury St., in Raleigh. For those who can’t attend, audio of the meeting will be streamed.

PFOA and PFOS are just two of the 47 chemicals and compounds for which DEQ is recommending permanent groundwater standards. Others include strontium, beryllium and many herbicides and pesticides.

Most of these chemicals already have an Interim Maximum Allowable Concentration, but IMACs, as they’re called, are only temporary.

The distinction between an IMAC and a permanent groundwater standard is important. Although both are legally enforceable, the establishment of an IMAC requires no public input. Under state law, anyone can petition DEQ for an IMAC, which is set solely by the director of the Division of Water Resources.

The procedure for establishing a permanent groundwater standard is more formal. It requires approval by the Environmental Management Commission, a public comment period, public hearing, and fiscal analysis.

PFOA has an Interim Maximum Allowable Concentration of 2 ppb. The proposed new permanent standard of 0.07 ppb is stronger.

New toxicological information prompted the change, according to DEQ documents.

For PFOS, there is no IMAC, so it’s subject to a different state law. That law says any chemical that isn’t naturally occurring and doesn’t have an interim standard — such as PFOS —  can’t exceed the “Practical Quantitation Limit.”

This limit is not based on health risks or exposure, but rather, laboratory considerations. It is legally defined as “the lowest concentration that can be reliably achieved among laboratories within specified limits of precision and accuracy by a given analytical method during routine laboratory analysis.”

The Practical Quantitation Limit for PFOS is 0.002 ppb. The proposed groundwater standard is weaker.

Other states that have standards or guidance for PFOA and PFOS:

  • Connecticut set a “private well action level” at 0.07 ppb for either compound or the sum of both.
  • Minnesota established a “health-based value” of 0.035 ppb for PFOA and 0.027 ppb for PFOS
  • Vermont passed an enforceable standard of  0.02 ppb.

If the EMC ultimately approves these standards, the decision could affect the degree and cost of cleanup levels at and around the Chemours plant, where PFOA and PFOS, as well as other similar compounds persist in the groundwater and surface water.

A fiscal analysis provided by DEQ notes that the strengthening standards for PFOA “could potentially increase remediation costs” at sites where it is the primary contaminants. But those costs “would be either fully or partially offset by the potential savings” from a weaker standard for PFOS.

Last month, Chemours submitted to DEQ a proposed groundwater Corrective Action Plan to reduce the contamination at and around the plant. Under a Consent Order, the company must  Within the 119-page document, Chemours says that it cannot meet the Practical Quantitation Limit ,in part because given the current technology, it would cost billions of dollars to remediate such an extensive area of groundwater contamination — at least 70 square miles or the equivalent of three Chapel Hills.

Groundwater on plant property became contaminated primarily through leaks and spills; off-site, the contamination occurred through atmospheric deposition. Contaminants entered the air through the stacks, rode on the wind and fell to the surface where they entered the groundwater.

Next, the Groundwater and Waste Management Committee can send DEQ’s recommendations to the full Environmental Management Commission. In turn, the EMC can then hold public hearings and a formal public comment period as early as April.




  1. Glen Thearling

    January 10, 2020 at 9:50 am

    Should it be saying ppm or ppb for NC?

  2. Lisa Sorg

    January 10, 2020 at 10:03 am

    The unit is 70 parts per trillion or 0.07 parts per billion. I used parts per trillion because the numbers (70, 10, etc.) are easier to get your head around than very small numbers (0.02, 0.07, etc.)

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