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Panel targets ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

  • Gloucester Daily Times, June 2, 2021

BOSTON — A new state panel is looking at ways to detect and remove so-called “forever chemicals” from drinking water.

On Tuesday, members of the PFAS Interagency Task Force met virtually for the first time to look at contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in water systems and come up with a plan to help cities and towns test for and treat the problem.

The chemicals, used to make products from frying pans to firefighting foam, have been detected in the water at increasing levels.

Rep. Sally Kerans, D-Danvers, a member of the task force, said she has become more “alarmed” by evidence of the chemicals contaminating drinking water. She said the panel needs to “figure out the roadmap” to deal with the problem.

“It just doesn’t get any more basic for me than clean, safe drinking water,” Kerans said during the hearing. “It’s a fundamental obligation of government.”

Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, told the panel that at least 600 water systems have been tested to date and a majority have not exceeded the state’s standard for PFAS contamination.

“Thankfully a lot of systems have come back with no issues,” Suuberg told the panel.

He said the agency is working with at least 23 communities that reported excessive PFAS levels to reduce the contamination.

Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration set requirements for public water systems to test for so-called PFAS and remove the contamination if concentrations of six specific chemicals are found above 20 parts per trillion.

Under the rules, polluters must clean soil and groundwater at contaminated sites if PFAS levels are above the new standards.

Locally, Danvers was among the communities that showed elevated levels of the chemicals, MassDEP says, but town officials have pointed out that the tests were from two wells, taken several years ago, and there has been no contamination of the town’s water treatment plant.

Meanwhile, MassDEP has conducted tests for PFAS in nearly 1,500 private drinking water wells in 63 communities at the behest of local officials.

Of those tests, 95% were negative for the chemicals. But wells in several communities — including Newbury — showed levels of PFAS above the state’s new standard, Suuberg said.

He said the state is also waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finalize testing requirements for PFAS discharges from wastewater treatment plants. Once those are in place, he said, the state will require monitoring for PFAS in treated wastewater that is discharged into the Merrimack River and other bodies of water.

The chemicals used in products from rain coats to upholstery have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the human body and can take thousands of years to degrade.

Research has found potential links between PFAS and illnesses such as kidney cancer and high cholesterol, as well as complications in pregnancies.

Dozens of states are weighing proposals to eliminate PFAS in food packaging, firefighting foam and other products, in addition to setting limits on the contaminants.

New Hampshire set limits on four PFAS chemicals in public drinking water supplies, ranging from 12 to 15 parts per trillion. Its limits went into effect in 2019.

There are currently no federal standards for PFAS in drinking water, but guidelines set a combined limit of 70 ppt.

The state task force is required to submit a report with findings and recommendations to the Legislature by the end of the year.