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Detecting 'forever chemicals' like PFAS is costly and difficult


The federal government says it will soon tighten regulations around a family of chemicals referred to as PFAS. They're known to be linked to cancer, and they're in everything from drinking water to cookware to sunscreen and even clothes. But as Patrick Skahill from member station Connecticut Public Radio reports, tracking down those contaminants is costly and difficult.

PATRICK SKAHILL: The chemicals are so woven into our lives that testing for them can push scientists to the limit.

SHANNON POCIU: Samplers would say, jeez, what do you want us to do? Sample naked?

SKAHILL: Shannon Pociu is an environmental analyst with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. She says PFAS aren't anything to joke about, but...

POCIU: I mean, that's almost where you're at. You want to be sure you're not going to unintentionally contaminate your sample.

SKAHILL: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often called forever chemicals, don't break down. They can accumulate over time in the body. And high concentrations have been linked to certain cancers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Seth Kellogg, a geologist on the board of the National Groundwater Association, says some states have worked to regulate the chemicals, but others haven't.

SETH KELLOGG: The patchwork of regulations that we're dealing with - where if you're on one side of a state line, it's one number. And on the other side of a state line, it's a different number - can be very frustrating.

SKAHILL: Now the EPA says it's working to create a federal drinking water limit on some of the chemicals, but those regulations aren't expected for at least two years. Kellogg says in her home state of New Jersey, residents will soon have to pay for PFAS testing on private wells if they want to sell their house. The EPA estimates about 13 million households use private wells in the United States, and Kellogg says public drinking water suppliers could also be on the hook for PFAS expenses if federal regulations evolve.

KELLOGG: Companies that provide drinking water will need to do both additional testing and could potentially need to do additional treatment.

SKAHILL: Michael Beckerich is president and CEO of York Analytical Laboratories, which does environmental testing in the Northeast. He says PFAS testing is really expensive when compared to testing for more standard contaminants.

MICHAEL BECKERICH: A lead in water test, which we do thousands a month, is $15, $16. A test for PFAS in water is around $350, $400, depending on what they're looking for.

SKAHILL: Finding PFAS is hard. Results are measured in parts per trillion. Imagine finding three droplets in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Detecting that requires careful chemistry and costly gear.

JEFFREY SMITH: It is by far the biggest capital investment that the lab has done for one specific analysis.

SKAHILL: Jeffrey Smith is director of operations for Complete Environmental Testing in Stratford, Conn. He says his company recently spent about $350,000 on a machine to look for PFAS. But as demand goes up, he says doing the work in-house will save money.

SMITH: We kind of saw the writing on the wall that there was a future for this testing, and there was a niche for it in our market. It just seems that it's something that's going to become a standard test.

SKAHILL: Shannon Pociu with the Connecticut DEEP says tighter regulations will mean more tests.

POCIU: There will be a lot more sampling done not only in Connecticut but throughout the U.S., and it won't be cheap.

SKAHILL: Which means more business for labs but also more questions for homeowners and government about who ultimately pays for these costly tests. For NPR news, I'm Patrick Skahill.