Contaminants in water affect Gloucester County families

Chelsea Minix, 24, (left) and sister Haley, 21, of West Deptford, with water supplied by Solvay Specialty Polymers, a plastics firm thought responsible for the contaminant in their well.
Chelsea Minix, 24, (left) and sister Haley, 21, of West Deptford, with water supplied by Solvay Specialty Polymers, a plastics firm thought responsible for the contaminant in their well. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2014

The white, office-style water dispenser in the corner of the kitchen says quite a bit about the unwanted lifestyle changes underway in the Minix household in West Deptford.

Jeannie Minix, 55 and a vegetarian, will not be eating the tomatoes, eggplant, and other organic produce she nurtures in her backyard garden. Her daughters Chelsea, 24, and Haley, 21, keep reminding themselves not to use ice cubes from the freezer or to run their toothbrushes under the faucet.

Otherwise unthinking actions are now tainted by fear of an emerging, unregulated contaminant found in the family's water this month.

Until you don't have water, said Jeannie Minix, a legal assistant, "you don't realize what an inconvenience it is not to have it."

The presence of perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) that has prompted five Gloucester County municipalities to stop using public wells has now hit home for several township families, including the Minixes, whose private wells have tested positive for the chemical. The family has lived in their Kings Highway home for three years, moving from Mickleton after purchasing the property from Jeannie's mother.

Now, their health concerns are coupled with worries about potential side effects on the home's property value. Their well was found to have 120 parts per trillion of PFNA, trailing the 150 parts per trillion found in a Paulsboro public well. The amount of PFNA in Paulsboro's well has been described in a state report as being "higher than reported elsewhere in the world" in drinking water studies. Another private well in West Deptford was found with 10 times that amount.

Solvay Specialty Polymers, a plastics company with a township plant that used PFNA until 2010, is believed responsible for releasing the chemical through water or air emissions. Solvay is supplying Minix and others with jugs of water as tests of private wells continue in West Deptford and East Greenwich for PFNA and other perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), part of an investigation the company is doing in cooperation with state and federal officials.

Meanwhile, watchful eyes are on the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is considering regulations for PFNA.

"If people are going to be dumping it into people's grounds," said Chelsea Minix, a nurse, "we need to have a regulation for it."

But Solvay and some business associations are skeptical about the limited available research for PFNA to warrant the standard proposed by the DEP.

The state Department of Health issued a fact sheet this month specifically for private well owners with PFC contamination, referencing a study that found "probable links" between perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and kidney cancer, thyroid disease, and other illnesses. PFNA, according to the DEP, is considered more toxic and biologically persistent than PFOA.

The most frequent human health effects found from PFOA are increased cholesterol and uric acid levels, the Health Department notes. Exposure to PFCs before birth or in early childhood "may result in decreased birth weight, decreased immune responses, and hormonal effects later in life," the department says.

The DEP's consideration of a groundwater criterion for PFNA - a proposed standard of 20 parts per trillion that would apply to remediation efforts - has drawn remarks from a host of stakeholders with conflicting opinions and interests, including Solvay. A department spokesman said an implementation date has not been set.

In comments submitted to the DEP, obtained by The Inquirer through an open public records request, environmental advocates such as the Delaware Riverkeeper Network have asked for a more stringent standard, as business groups and industry allies, including the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, questioned economic impacts, testing feasibility, and New Jersey's would-be position as the first to regulate PFNA. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the proposed standard was acceptable.

Solvay has challenged the department's proposal, pointing to reliance on animal toxiciology studies and a dearth of PFNA studies.

"The department is taking this unprecedented step without any study that shows that PFNA in water at any level causes health effects in humans," Solvay lawyers wrote. The company, which has enlisted national consultants, criticized "insufficient" epidemiological evidence of PFNA health effects. It called the proposal a "short-cut rulemaking process."

"The DEP applied methods and procedures as we do when we establish any standard," DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said in an e-mail. "The Department of Health peer-reviewed and approved the number developed by the DEP's Office of Science and Research."

Hajna, asked about Solvay's epidemiological claim, said "human studies that can demonstrate cause and effect between chemicals and health effects are usually not available."

"It is generally accepted that effects seen in animals may occur in humans," he said, "and animal toxicology studies are usually used by regulatory agencies as the basis for the quantitative risk assessment."

The Drinking Water Quality Institute, an advisory panel to the DEP, also is exploring drinking-water standards for PFNA and related chemicals.

Bill Wolfe, director of NJ Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the institute's maximum contaminant levels would serve a larger purpose, requiring routine tests by water purveyors throughout the state. "What DEP is proposing is really only going to apply to Solvay," he said of the groundwater criterion.

Comments for maximum contaminant level have solicited feedback similar to that for the groundwater criterion.

Because PFNA remains unregulated, Hajna said, the department can't tap the state Spill Compensation Fund, sometimes used to connect affected wells to other supplies or to apply treatment systems. The Minixes are seeking relief in a lawsuit filed July 14 against Solvay.

"It's obvious what the next step is" for the company, said the family's attorney, Mark Cuker. "Fix it."

Hajna said the department had been in talks with Solvay about potential solutions for the wells.

"We're taking a look at that," said David Klucsik, a Solvay spokesman, who said the company is still collecting data. Solvay has said it is examining whether other sources for the contamination may exist, and has denied liability.

In the meantime, the Minix family is using outsourced water - Solvay-provided jugs and bottles from a local convenience store - for almost everything except bathing and washing clothes. Their pets - Maggie, a golden retriever; Charlie, the chocolate lab; and Harry, the cat - are drinking bottled water, too. Jeannie Minix is concerned about the future.

"My girls haven't had any children yet," she said. "You wonder if it could affect them down the line."

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

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