News Feature | September 3, 2018

Amid Contamination Crisis, PFAS Experts Are In Demand

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Pennsylvania is having trouble finding an in-house toxicologist to set standards for perfluorinated compounds.

At a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) meeting in August, officials offered an update on their effort to set a standard for PFOA, The Intelligencer reported, citing David Hess, a former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“Staff reported back that they were struggling to find a toxicologist — a researcher necessary to determine safe levels of chemicals,” the report stated.

The agency’s effort to set a standard for PFOA began last summer, after Delaware Riverkeeper Network petitioned the DEP to consider such a standard.

“Staff from DEP, as well as the state Department of Health, then went about the task of seeing what it would take,” the report stated.

As awareness of the PFAS crisis spreads across the country, experts on this issue are in demand.

“Many states are grappling with addressing issues related to emerging contaminants, and there is significant competition for candidates with the qualifications and experience required,” Neil Shader, DEP press secretary, wrote in an email, per The Intelligencer. “That said, we are working to find a qualified candidate to fill this important role.”

The Intelligencer offered insight on what such a job would pay.

“An online ad for the [Pennsylvania] position lists the potential salary range as $95,120 to $141,399 and requires a doctorate and at least three years of experience as a professional toxicologist,” The Intelligencer reported.

Given that the federal government has not set a standard for PFAS, this work is left to the states.

“Typically, the state relies on federal standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. But the EPA itself hasn’t set a new standard for any chemical in nearly 20 years, leaving unregulated contaminants such as PFOA and sister chemical PFOS without an official drinking water limit. The federal agency is considering setting standards for those chemicals, but in the interim many states are doing it themselves,” the report stated.

Shader, the DEP press secretary, commented on what this dynamic means for Pennsylvania.

“Due to the lack of guidance from the EPA, Pennsylvania, which like many states has never established (drinking water limits), is working to build the personnel and technical infrastructure to do so from scratch,” Shader said. “This involves a significant expansion of program capacity.”

The threat of PFAS contamination has become a high-profile issue in the wake of revelations that military bases and factories have contaminated the water supply with these chemicals in various parts of the country, including the Philadelphia suburbs.

“Tens of thousands of people in Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington Townships were among the first to learn that their drinking water was tainted, and scores have reported cases of cancer,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“The U.S. EPA is currently drafting a PFAS cleanup plan and has met with communities in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and North Carolina,” according to a statement from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY.

As states grapple with how to address perfluorinated compounds, Congress is also considering the issue. A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation in August to address the PFAS threat.

“The PFAS Detection Act (S.3382) provides the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) with $45M to develop new advanced technologies to detect PFAS and then requires USGS to conduct nationwide sampling for PFAS in the environment,” according to a statement from Sen. Gary Peters, D-MI.