By Jon Winkler
AYER - About 50 residents filled the Ayer-Shirley Regional High School Tuesday night to learn more about the chemical compounds detected in their water supply.
The People of Ayer Concerned About the Environment, or PACE, hosted an informational meeting where three environmental experts detailed the origins, national spread and potential health risks of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. Levels of these chemical compounds were detected in several town water wells within the last two years, causing residents concern over whether or not their public water supply is safe to drink.
Though a definite cause of the notable levels of PFAS in Ayer's water wells has not been determined, prior reports believed it to be toxic runoff from old landfills and dump sites at the now-defunct Fort Devens military base.
Rich Doherty, professional engineer and environmental consultant for PACE, pointed out how the Army previously performed PFAS sampling at over 2900 global locations. Doherty said the Army found 21 sites, including Devens, with PFAS levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Lifetime Health Advisory Level of 70 parts per trillion. While the Army's investigation is still in progress, Doherty said that PFAS compounds likely migrated to Ayer water wells from Devens.
While some residents might fear immediate exposure to PFAS, some may have already been exposed to the compounds without taking a sip of town water. According to Dr. Phil Brown, professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University, 98 percent of Americans have PFAS in their blood from eating seafood and using certain consumer products like non-stick pans and dental floss. Because of the combination of items and water being PFAS risks, Brown said that 110 million Americans may have PFAS levels of five parts per trillion in their bloodstream.
"This is really one of the major contamination crises of our time," he said.
Ayer is not the first Massachusetts town to have PFAS in its water. Dr. Laurel Schaider, research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, said the EPA found levels in the public water supplies of Westfield, Hudson, Danvers, Hyannis and Mashpee through testing performed between 2013 and 2015. Schaider laid out health concerns tied to PFAS exposure including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility and immune system toxicity.
In terms of preventing exposure to PFAS, Schaider recommended that residents make changes to their household items ranging from avoiding stain-resistant carpets and choosing cast-iron, glass or enamel kitchen products. She also suggested minor changes to people's diets, including eating more fresh foods and avoiding microwave popcorn or greasy food wrapped in paper. For the town government officials, Schaider recommended shutting off contaminated wells and installing water treatment plants at affected wells, though she noted those methods are costly.
Those methods were in fact carried out by Ayer and its Department of Public Works Superintendent Mark Wetzel, who was also present at the meeting. He noted that the town turned off one of the water wells located at Grove Pond that had the highest level of PFAS last year and reactivated another Grove Pond well to meet any additional water demands needed last summer.
Wetzel added that the town performs quarterly samplings of the Grove Pond wells to monitor the compound levels and recently approved $4.2 million for a PFAS removal treatment system at Grove Pond, with the Army paying for the construction. He also noted how the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is in the early stages of establishing its own state-mandated maximum contaminant level of 20 parts per trillion.
PACE President Laurie Nehring said after the meeting that she was pleased with the "wonderful turnout," though she wished members of the state DEP were present to talk more about their plans to establish a state-based maximum contaminant level.
"I think that residents can start attending meetings and speak up to their elected officials," Nehring said. "It's all about becoming more informed on PFAS."