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Rutgers professors weigh in on recent NJDEP directive on chemical cleanup

 Keith Cooper, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, said early exposure to the chemical contaminants at a young age could lead to harmful effects later on in the future.  – Photo by

On March 25, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) issued a directive ordering five chemical companies to funds the removal of certain PFAS chemicals contained in natural resources, such as drinking water.

“These compounds have (the) capability of moving through the soil and getting into groundwater so that they can get into your drinking water,” said Keith Cooper, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and member of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute.

Two of the compounds involved are PFNA and PFOA, both of which fall under the PFAS chemical class. Cooper said these compounds are typically used to remove stains from carpets, add water resistance to clothes and for firefighting foams. These compounds have also been found in the bloodstream of almost every person that has been tested for it in the country.

People are exposed to certain compounds through dust, drinking water, food and other mediums. These compounds do not break down in the environment and have a long half-life in an individual’s body, meaning that in 5 to 10 years there will still be remnants of the compounds remaining. 

Studies conducted found that rodents developed certain types of cancers when exposed to different compounds. These studies on rodents also showed similar effects to studies conducted with humans. Cooper said a previous study found a correlation between PFOA levels in drinking water and adverse effects in people.

One such effect is increased cholesterol, which is connected to heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. The compound also has the potential to disrupt hormonal levels at low concentrations. 

“Early exposure in the developing organism translates to effects later on,” Cooper said.

Drinking water facilities typically use three methods to eliminate these compounds down to levels where people are no longer being exposed, called “treatment streams,” Cooper said. With the new directive, all drinking water companies in the state will ultimately be required to test for all these compounds and either treat it or find another source of drinking water to provide if needed, which most facilities have already done.

“In reality the concentrations are going to continue to fall, and what we have seen across the country is that even with the actions we have started to take, you can already start to see a decrease in some of these compounds,” Cooper said.

The NJDEP is also requiring these companies to pay for the testing and cleanup done thus far, which is possible because of the current system in the country, said Angela Oberg, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Human Ecology.

Because of the federalist system in the United States, the federal level can set certain limits on contaminants, but some states can choose to set stricter limits, she said. This case was one in which the federal government had not set limits on these compounds, but New Jersey said that a limit was needed.

“There’s a long history of lawsuits being brought against companies for pollution,” Oberg said.

Even with the directive, she said environmental advocates would argue that the fines are not strict enough to hold companies accountable. If a company can generate more revenue by polluting over time rather than pay the fine, it may be in their best financial interest to keep polluting. 

“When you look at it that way, then our responsibility is to make it not economically make sense,” Oberg said.

The companies have known for a long time that the chemicals might be unsafe, and they knew this was the next step in that ongoing conversation, Oberg said. As the conversation moves forward, there will be significantly more money involved, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup.

If the companies take responsibility now and pay the $3 million, they may be obligated to pay the total number later, she said.

When the companies respond, they are going to try to get out of it by saying it is not their responsibility or through other tactics, she said. This can be done through the courts or through direct negotiation with the agency.

“This is a great first step, but I think we have a long pitched battle ahead of us to actually get money for cleanup,” Oberg said.

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