Massachusetts regulators may need to expand PFAS monitoring into waste disposal, landfill and the atmosphere amid concerns about potential health risks from the chemicals, the head of the state Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday.
The most recent regulatory updates for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, targeted drinking water because it is already a "well-understood exposure pathway and an area where we could make an important, immediate impact," DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg told lawmakers and other officials.
Other states have broadened their focus, Suuberg said, adding that DEP is watching those efforts closely as it plans next steps to tackle the so-called "forever chemicals."
"We're mindful of the fact that waste disposal facilities, landfills are areas we might need to be looking at," Suuberg said in response to a question about expanding monitoring efforts. "The list of areas that we could look at is daunting, but I would say probably you're right — air is an area that all of us are going to need to take a look at."
Amid what Suuberg called "growing attention" about the presence of PFAS chemicals, a new intergovernmental task force kicked off its work Tuesday to analyze their impact in Massachusetts and craft recommended steps to limit contamination.
The man-made chemicals do not decompose entirely in the environment, and they are found in a range of products from firefighting foams to non-stick cookware to food packaging. They have also been found to leach from packaging into Anvil 10+10, a pesticide the state has used to combat mosquito-borne illnesses, creating thorny problems for some communities.
Experts caution that exposure to PFAS chemicals can cause health problems, particularly in those who are immunocompromised, pregnant women, and infants, Suuberg said.
During the task force's first meeting, Suuberg recounted recent developments in government efforts to rein in PFAS contamination. A "turning point" came in May 2016, Suuberg said, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency updated its health advisory with a lower PFAS concentration threshold of 70 parts per trillion.
Massachusetts went even further than federal guidelines. Late last year, DEP issued final rules for soil and groundwater cleanup and implemented final regulations setting the maximum contaminant level in drinking water for six PFAS compounds at 20 parts per trillion.
Since implementation of that new standard, which the Boston Globe described as one of the strictest in the country, a growing number of water systems have detected concentration of the compounds at levels requiring notification and response.
Fifty-one public water systems — which range in scope from covering entire towns to serving individual housing developments — have found PFAS chemicals at a concentration above the maximum contaminant level in at least one test, according to a DEP online map.
Many of the water systems flagged by DEP are municipal departments in communities such as Acton, Bedford, Braintree, Brockton, Cohasset, Easton, Foxborough, Hudson, Hyannis, Littleton, Natick, Pepperell, Topsfield and Wayland.
"Of the 51, most have taken actions to provide their customers with drinking water that is below the standard," DEP spokesman Ed Coletta said in a statement on Tuesday, referencing steps such as treating water or tapping into new sources.
In North Attleboro, for example, one well tested above the PFAS threshold and has since been taken out of service by the town's water department, which is "investigating treatment options for possible future use of the well," according to DEP's website.
Suuberg said 600 public water systems, including 25 of the largest ones, have been sampled to test for PFAS so far. Most reported no issues, but the department is working with 23 of the community water systems with excessive PFAS levels, he said.
"Each one requires an individualized approach to figure out what the short-term answers will be to minimize PFAS exposure as well as developing long-term plans," Suuberg said.
Coletta, the DEP spokesperson, said Tuesday afternoon that the Abington/Rockland Water System had implemented sufficient PFAS treatment and then tested below the concentration threshold, pushing the listthat Suuberg referenced down to 22.
The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker included funding in two different supplemental budget bills to support sampling for PFAS contamination. To date, Suuberg said, the state has made $180 million available for 16 projects, mostly through the Clean Water Trust.
Suuberg praised an effort the DEP undertook in 2018 and 2019 to remove certain older firefighting foams that contain PFAS chemicals from departments, which he said "basically removed 200,000 pounds from the shelves." He also said officials across agencies will continue to monitor research about the impact of the substances and update regulations accordingly.
"We are going to be keeping a close eye on the development of information about PFAS moving forward," Suuberg said.
Over the coming months, members of the task force plan to dive into how PFAS chemicals impact the environment, who is responsible for contamination and remediation, and what steps Beacon Hill can take to address the growing concern.
Sen. Julian Cyr, one of the group's co-chairs, said Tuesday that members have "a lot of work to do."
"Increasingly, we're concerned that PFAS may affect most every town in the Cape and Islands District," Cyr, a Truro Democrat, said. "We all recognize that these forever chemicals, particularly their presence in the groundwater in a place like Cape Cod or on Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket — we only have a sole-source aquifer. There's not another option."
The PFAS Interagency Task Force, created in the fiscal year 2021 state budget via a Rep. Kate Hogan amendment, must complete its work and file a report by Dec. 31.
Hogan recounted Tuesday that she first became involved in PFAS mitigation when Hudson, a town she represents, discovered PFAS contamination in its water supply. Addressing the problem will require "urgent and committed state leadership," the House speaker pro tempore said.
"Since we now seem to be coming out of other attention-grabbing headlines, PFAS is coming back to the fore," Hogan, a Stow Democrat, said. "It's quickly becoming clear to me that tackling PFAS contamination in water supplies must be bigger than any one town, region or any one agency."