Turning off the PFAS tap forever

Plumbers help keep people and communities safe by providing access to clean drinking water. But what happens when a community’s water supply is compromised? That’s the predicament in which several Massachusetts cities and towns find themselves.

About a year ago, the state issued directives requiring public water systems to test for dangerous polyfluroalkyl chemicals, known as PFAS for short. 20 percent discovered levels that exceeded regulations. Some, such as Wayland, began distributing bottled water to households. Other affected communities include Natick, Randolph, and Wellesley.

The group of chemicals share a carbon-fluorine bond that is among the strongest known to humans. That makes them especially effective for items designed to be non-stick or water- and stain-resistant. These include non-stick cookware, rain jackets, dental floss, and ski wax. The strong chemical bond also makes PFAS extremely persistent in the environment, hence their nickname: “forever chemicals.” They are often found in drinking water and groundwater.

“They are very difficult to get rid of once they are created,” says Kyla Bennett, Ph.D., science policy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a former scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency in Boston. PFAS have been linked with health issues ranging from cancer, developmental delays for children, and immune problems. They have been shown to affect wildlife as well as humans. “We have to turn off the PFAS tap, literally and figuratively, to stop them from affecting us,” adds Bennett.

U.S. manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to stop making the two most common PFAS chemicals. They are among the six that Massachusetts is targeting. The problem is that the country continues to import and use products that contain the chemicals. And there are more than 9,000 variations that fall under the PFAS umbrella. When states such as Massachusetts identify some that are problematic, manufacturers develop a slightly different formulation. “It’s a never-ending game of whack-a-mole,” Bennett says. “It’s an untenable situation. They are ubiquitous.” Instead, regulators are starting to think about targeting PFAS as a class and banning them altogether.

What can communities and individuals do? Bennett’s hometown of Easton first gave residents $75 rebates to purchase home filters that are certified to remove PFAS. Now, the DPW has installed a small system where residents can fill up jugs and containers with filtered water. The town is talking about building a high-tech filtration system for the entire water supply. Its $10 million price tag makes it a costly consideration for a small community, however.

As is the case in other communities, Easton is also blending the water it pumps from the town’s seven wells, three of which are contaminated. That dilutes the PFAS and brings it under 20 parts per trillion, the level the state has established as the cutoff. Bennett says many scientists think the limit is too high and should be closer to 0.1 parts per trillion.

In addition to regulating the amount of PFAS in drinking water, lawmakers are trying to target the source of the chemicals. There are bills in the state legislature that would ban PFAS in certain products. Other states, including Vermont, have imposed such bans. One of the items that contains the chemicals is pipe thread seal tape, a plumbing staple. Bennett says that plumbers should be looking for alternatives that don’t have PFAS.

Drinking water isn’t the only concern. In addition to ingesting the chemicals, people can also inhale them when they are aerosolized and absorb them through the skin (when showering, for example).

Massachusetts is one of the leaders tackling the PFAS issue in the country. But the chemicals are so pervasive, the federal government should ideally be involved. To date, the EPA has not imposed any regulations. That may be changing, however.

In July the U.S. House passed the PFAS Action Act, which would require the EPA to set a federal standard for the chemicals in drinking water. The legislation is making its way through Congress.

“The writing is on the wall. Eventually PFAS will be banned,” Bennett says. “We have to keep ourselves safe until we get there.”