Testing, testing … Dover firm was ahead of the curve when it comes to ‘forever chemicals,’ but increased demand is straining sector

Water samples arrive from all over the region to a small lab along a residential street in Dover. Agra Environmental and Laboratory Services tests about 1,000 different New Jersey water systems, sometimes receiving samples from other, larger labs in the same line of business.

It has something a lot of drinking water testing labs don’t: The ability to determine how much of the Garden State’s water is tainted with so-called “forever chemicals,” a class of manufacturing byproducts deemed hazardous to health.

As municipalities, water utilities and regulators fixate on how to clean up contaminants implicated in a wide range of health problems — including cancer and immune system deficits, even elevated cholesterol — one of the lesser-discussed themes is that there are few places to turn when testing for them.

Mike Furrey, owner of Agra Environmental and Laboratory Services, has years of experience in probing for lead, copper, iron and other contaminants in drinking water. He correctly suspected that restrictions on PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, would tighten over time, and that more work would need to be done to probe for traces of these compounds in water.

“We bought one instrument first, but we couldn’t keep up with the amount of testing that was suddenly happening, so we quickly bought a second one,” he said. “New Jersey has its own regulations it passed. As these regulations continue to develop, we’ll probably increase the capability of our testing even more.”

Furrey’s lab was ahead of the first local standard for the state’s water purveyors: The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s 2021-adopted rule that established maximum contaminant levels of 14 parts per trillion for PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and 13 parts per trillion for PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid. It was the strictest such restriction in the country.

The federal government, through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has since called for a more dramatic nationwide reduction in the amount of these contaminants allowed in water, proposing limiting both compounds to 4 parts per trillion.

Mark Annis. (Anco Environmental Services Inc.)

Mark Annis, founder and president of Berkeley Heights-based Anco Environmental Services Inc., said these “forever chemicals,” which originate in manufacturing processes of products with a broad spectrum of industrial and commercial applications, are quickly taking precedence in the work of environmental services firms.

Addressing it begins with testing for it. And that first step has been an early hurdle.

“There’s only so many labs, and not all of them are up to speed,” he said. “There’s just not enough firms licensed to do the testing for these compounds. The labs that I deal with are often sending samples to out-of-state labs with more production facilities and the ability to turn around a large number of samples. Regardless, it takes a while to get results back.”

In spite of the backlog, there’s a wider range of parties that are going to be interested in testing for these chemicals, Annis expects.

“If you’re a manufacturer making a product using these compounds, you’d be doing testing there when selling the place,” he said. “I also see testing new buyers of properties, especially certain homebuyers, wanting to test to make sure these compounds aren’t there when they buy a place.”

Among the privately-owned labs offering testing services, Annis identified the same barriers to entry that the labs themselves do.

Namely, there’s a big investment — of both time and money — required to do this testing.

“These two instruments cost around $400,000 apiece,” Furrey said, “so it’s a huge investment for any business. On top of that, it takes a long time to get certified through the (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection), about two years.”

It also takes a highly skilled individual that’s ready to run half-million-dollar equipment. That hasn’t been the easiest for labs such as Agra Environmental and Laboratory Services to find.

That lack of specialized talent could play a role in a long-term stall in available commercial testing services for PFAS.

Furrey’s lab is already trying to prepare for the next wave of water testing demand, which he expects might come from 1,4-Dioxane, an unwanted byproduct in cleaning and hygiene products. The suspected human carcinogen is already regulated in New York, but not yet in New Jersey.

There’s other emerging drinking water contaminants, such as algae bloom-associated cyanotoxins and microplastics, that he has an eye on as well.

“On some of these, we’re still waiting to see what regulators are going to do,” Furrey said.

Common compounds

Mark Annis of Anco Environmental Services Inc., is here to tell you what’s to blame for these easily-confused four-letter acronyms: PFOA and PFOS, which are both forms of PFAS.

And it won’t take as long to learn as these compounds do to break down (at least a century, Annis said).

“These compounds are truly ‘forever’ chemicals: They don’t naturally degrade, but instead bio-accumulate inside of bodies,” he said. “As the unaware public, we have accepted them as part of daily living … in a time when, every year, thousands of new compounds are invented and made commercially available without consideration for human health effects.”

Teflon is probably the culprit you’ve heard of, Annis said. This material, which is used in the manufacturing of nonstick cookware, is meant to handle extreme heats and not break down by design.

“But it also tends to accumulate in places you don’t want it, like inside of you,” he said. “I think of the times I was cooking something and saw the bottom of an old, dark pan flaking away and I wonder how much ended up in me. Because the acceptable levels of it are surprisingly low. And it’s apparently found inside most of us.”

Another culprit is the flame-retardant fabric introduced many years ago as part of a consumer movement to make baby clothing and towels fireproof, Annis added.

What Annis described as tragic was yet another common source of these compounds: Fire-suppressing foam. He called it that because there’s really no substitute, he said, for what fire departments use to extinguish blazes in high-risk situations besides this heat-tolerant foam.

Ultimately, it all ends up in groundwater and soil underneath a wide array of properties. There’s some unexpected hot spots, however, that have drawn additional scrutiny.

“One of the business types under the microscope in most states are dry cleaners,” he said. “Many of them are using antiquated equipment that doesn’t completely remove solvents from clothing that can then leak into the environment. If you’re a bank offering financing as a dry cleaner changes hands, you’re more likely to want testing done. And, more often than not, you’re finding these contaminants under the building and in the backyard, so to speak.”