Metro

Massachusetts issues new standards for ‘forever chemicals’ in water supply

The MWRA's wastewater treatment plant in Quincy.
David Abel/Globe Staff
The MWRA's wastewater treatment plant in Quincy.

Amid growing concerns about toxic chemicals in the water supply, state regulators Friday announced significant new limits on the human-made compounds in drinking water and approved new requirements ordering polluters to clean up contaminated soil and ground water.

The long-awaited rules come as environmental officials acknowledge that the per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known as PFAS, have been found in a growing number of communities across the state.

The chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, low infant birth weights, and a range of diseases, have been found so far in 28 of 37 municipal water systems that have provided test results to the state Department of Environmental Protection, officials said this week. Of those, 12 found that the amounts exceed the proposed standards for drinking water.

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Of 26 non-municipal water systems — those that supply large institutions, such as schools and prisons — half of them detected PFAS in their wells, and nine exceeded the proposed standards.

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“The protective standards being filed today are significant steps to protect public health,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement.

A growing body of research has found that PFAS — dubbed “forever chemicals” because they never fully degrade — can be harmful to human health in even minute amounts. The compounds, which were developed in the 1940s, have since been used in products from nonstick pans to pizza boxes.

Officials at the US Environmental Protection Agency, who have promised to release national drinking-water limits for the two most prevalent PFAS chemicals, currently maintain a health advisory that recommends municipalities alert the public if the two chemicals reach 70 parts per trillion.

Massachusetts has used the same level for five of the most common PFAS chemicals.

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Under the new standards, the state will require polluters to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater if the total concentration of six chemicals in PFAS reaches 20 parts per trillion.

Regulators announced the same limit for drinking water. Those rules must still go through a public-comment period and could be revised. They’re slated to take effect in the middle of next year. Under those rules, all public water systems — those that serve more than 25 people every day for at least two months a year — will be required to test for the six chemicals.

If they detect PFAS concentrations exceeding the new standard, they would be required to alert their consumers and take a range of action to remove the contamination.

“We believe setting these standards is the right thing to do to protect public water systems,” said Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The new standards mirror similar standards set in Vermont, which advises residents to avoid drinking water if the concentration of the six chemicals cumulatively reaches 20 parts per trillion. New Hampshire this year set a limit of 11 parts per trillion for one of the more prevalent chemicals, while officials in New Jersey recently set similarly low standards for other common compounds.

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Some environmental advocates say the new standards don’t go far enough.

A draft report by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which the EPA last year tried to prevent from being published, said the chemicals could be harmful at one-sixth the levels the agency now considers safe.

Studies by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have recommended that children not consume water with concentrations of the chemicals greater than 1 part per trillion and have called the health risks “greatly underestimated.”

The plan “doesn’t fully protect the health of Massachusetts families,” said Sylvia Broude, executive director of Toxics Action Center, an environmental advocacy group in Boston. “Growing scientific evidence shows there is no safe level of PFAS in water, and that’s why we’ve been calling for a drinking water standard of 1 ppt for total combined PFAS.”

She and others urged the state to prevent communities from distributing water from wells that exceed the proposed standard immediately. They also called on the state to take legal action against the producers of the chemicals, such as DuPont and 3M.

Suuberg declined to comment on whether the state is considering legal action. Officials from the state attorney general’s office said they’re monitoring the issue closely.

Other environmental advocates, while calling on the state to move more quickly, said they were pleased with the new standards.

“I know that other organizations are asking for 1 ppt, or even zero, and if money for treatment was unlimited . . . I’d agree those lower levels would be ideal,” said Laurie Nehring, president of People of Ayer Concerned about the Environment.

The town of Ayer took one well offline after local officials discovered its water was contaminated with elevated levels of PFAS.

“We have been waiting for this regulation to come out for a long time,” Nehring said.

Suuberg said his department is also considering whether it should apply standards to other sources of the chemicals that could harm people, such as fertilizers known as biosolids, which are produced as byproducts of wastewater treatment plants.

The Globe reported this month that the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority has been selling fertilizer throughout the region that its own tests found contains more than 18,000 parts per trillion of three PFAS chemicals. That fertilizer is used by farmers and gardeners.

Recognizing that the new requirements will pose a financial burden on communities, state lawmakers this week approved $24 million to help communities pay for testing and for no-interest loans for installing filtration systems.

Most municipal water systems lack the expensive technology to filter such small concentrations 0f PFAS.

The state aid will be helpful to towns such as Easton, which recently found that six of its seven wells contained PFAS. The chemicals in two of the wells exceed the proposed standards, one by more than twice the limit.

Local officials are considering their options, which include installing a multimillion-dollar filtration system for the town’s drinking water. Last month, Easton began issuing a $75 rebate for residents to buy certified filters for their homes.

“We’ve been learning in the last few weeks how serious this is,” said Dottie Fulginiti, chair of the town’s select board. “We’re still coming up with a plan about how to address this, but anything like this in our water is very concerning.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.