DNREC and the DHSS Division of Public Health are working with federal agencies to protect the environment and public health in Delaware from the effects of a group of synthetic chemicals known as PFAS.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) include thousands of synthetic chemicals including PFOA, PFOS, and GenX. They have been used throughout the world in manufacturing, firefighting, and consumer products since the 1940s.
The state maintains a list of sites being investigated by DNREC for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water, groundwater or surface water in Delaware.
PFAS do not readily break down in the environment and can accumulate in living things. Some toxicological studies have found that exposure to these substances can cause serious health effects.
PFAS are considered “emerging contaminants” by federal environmental and public health regulators. A group of state and federal agencies are investigating PFAS, their sources, and their presence in the environment. This group includes DNREC, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Geological Survey, and the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
When PFAS are detected in public drinking water in Delaware at concentrations above the EPA’s health advisory limit (70 parts per trillion), the group implements a response plan, which may include alternate sources of water and/or water treatment, to ensure that public water supplies are safe to consume.
In 2018, the DNREC Division of Waste and Hazardous Substances adopted a policy to define where sampling for PFAS may occur in groundwater and surface water within the state. In 2023, this policy was updated to include other media and add select PFAS as hazardous substances regulated under HSCA, pertinent aspects of the addition, as well as expectations related to sampling and characterization of these emerging contaminants. (Learn more about the update)
The federal Safe Drinking Water Act governs the quality and testing of all public drinking water supplied by water systems in the United States. The EPA works with states, localities and water suppliers to implement drinking water regulations. Drinking water supplied by public systems in Delaware is regulated by the Division of Public Health to ensure compliance with the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.
The National Primary Drinking Water Regulations are legally-enforceable standards and treatment techniques that include maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for chemicals. The EPA has not yet established an MCL for any PFAS.
However, the State of Delaware, through the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act, has proposed its own MCLs for PFOS and PFOA. The DHSS Division of Public Health is leading implementation of a plan for these MCLs and the associated public process.
Water systems that need assistance implementing the PFOS and PFOA maximum contaminant level plan can find information on options and potential financial assistance from the Department of Health and Social Services.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced a proposal to create Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for six PFAS compounds:
The EPA will hold hearings related to this proposal and seek input over the next year. Learn more on the EPA website.
DNREC and partners conducted statewide groundwater sampling groundwater through existing public potable wells based on a sampling plan that details the dynamic sampling approach and protocols used to conduct the survey.
The result of that sampling is a Persistent Pollutants Sampling Report that details the actions taken, significant detections, and overall distribution of select PFAS compounds across Delaware.
Delawareans who do not have public drinking water generally get their water from private wells. Groundwater (water stored in aquifers below the surface of the earth), directly supplies all private wells. The Safe Drinking Water Act does not apply to drinking water from private wells.
If you own a private well, the EPA recommends learning more about how to protect and maintain your well for all contaminants of concern.
Learn more about private wells, ground water and drinking water from the EPA.
Sampling for PFAS is best done by a professional. DNREC recommends using environmental consulting firms certified to perform work in Delaware under the Hazardous Substance Cleanup Act (HSCA), as well as DNREC-approved laboratories.
Laboratory analysis for PFOS and PFOA by EPA Drinking Water Method 537 may cost $400 or more. This does not include the cost of collecting the sample by the environmental consulting firm.
Water contaminated with PFAS can be treated with carbon filters and reverse osmosis. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) publishes standards (NSF/ANSI 53 and 58) related to the removal of PFAS through these systems.
The National Sanitation Foundation lists products it has certified to reduce PFOA/PFOS in drinking water.
Surface water is withdrawn from a few rivers, streams and/or ponds in Delaware for purposes of public drinking water supply. The remainder of domestic water supply in the state comes from groundwater. Irrigation wells for agriculture extract significant quantities of groundwater during the growing season in certain parts of the state, as well.
Based on the generally sandy nature of the soils in the coastal plain of Delaware, shallow groundwater readily discharges to surface water, especially during seasonally high groundwater elevations in the winter and early spring when evapotranspiration is at a minimum. Baseflow in local streams and rivers is derived from shallow groundwater discharge.
As a consequence, any contaminants that may be present in groundwater (including PFAS) can be released to surface water through groundwater to surface water discharge.
PFAS and other toxic contaminants can also enter surface water through overland flow (i.e., stormwater runoff), through industrial discharges, and through atmospheric deposition.
Once in the surface water, contaminants can contribute to direct toxicity to fish and other aquatic life. Depending on several factors, some contaminants can also be taken up by local fish and other aquatic life in the process of bioaccumulation. This not only increases the body burden of the chemicals in the biota themselves, potentially causing impacts, but it also creates an exposure pathway to higher life forms like piscivorous birds (e.g., kingfishers, great blue heron, osprey, bald eagles), aquatic mammals (e.g., otters), and humans through the consumption of contaminated fish.
DNREC’s Watershed Approach to Toxics Assessment and Restoration (WATAR) team is gearing up to conduct a comprehensive statewide PFAS surface water study in the fall of 2022. Find more information about the study on the WATAR web page.
Nationwide studies since the early 2000s indicate that PFAS exist in influent, effluent and residuals (biosolids) of wastewater treatment plants (Bogdan, D. 2021). Some of the most frequently detected PFAS were PFAAs (persistent perfluoroalkyl acids). This makes wastewater treatment plants important in managing and mitigating the environmental spread of PFAAs and a key participant in protecting both human and environmental health.
In Delaware, various wastewater streams (domestic, industrial and municipal) are treated and discharged into surface water bodies (NPDES discharges) as well as onto the ground surface, where it infiltrates the soil and ultimately enters groundwater (on-site wastewater discharges). Biosolids are land applied at numerous sites across the state.
DNREC’s Water Resource Protection team has started a statewide study of PFAS in wastewater.
Biosolids were selected to be examined first under a Biosolids Project Design and Sampling Plan. In December 2022, samples of biosolids (before being land applied), soils (from a selected land application site) and groundwater (from the monitoring wells installed at the selected site) were collected.
A Project Design and Sampling Plan for wastewater influent, effluent and discharge receival media (soil and groundwater) has been completed. Field sampling is expected to start in the summer of 2023.
In addition, samples of septages from individual septic systems will also be collected and evaluated, under a Project Design and Sampling Plan for septages.