AYER — Local residents still concerned about chemical traces in their drinking water are invited to learn more about the issue later this month.
The People of Ayer Concerned About the Environment will host a free meeting open to the public on April 23 at the Ayer-Shirley High School from 7 to 9 p.m.
The meeting will serve as an information session for locals to learn the specifics about polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, levels of which have been detected in Ayer and Shirley drinking water wells.
The meeting will feature a panel of experts detailing the possible health effects of PFAS and what local and state officials have done so far to curb the contamination.
Public concern was heightened after news reports noted state officials’ poor monitoring of local water wells after levels of PFAS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA were found in wells. This came after the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection required towns surrounding Fort Devens, where toxic runoff from old landfills and dumpsites at the military base were believed to be the causes of chemicals seeping into the water, to test their wells in September 2016.
PFAS are chemical compounds first found in teflon pans and Scotchgard fabric protector and more recently found in fire-fighting foam meant to extinguish oil or gas fires. The chemical compounds are unregulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and in terms of PFOA, the department declared a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion as the maximum amount of chemical traces in the water.
Laurie Nehring, president of PACE, said on Thursday that the meeting is meant to clear up “a lot of misinformation” about the health effects of PFAS and the contamination reports. She and PACE believe the EPA should deem the advisory level as a “maximum contaminant level” and lower it to 20 parts per trillion.
“We believe that Ayer is working toward a solution, but we’re not there yet,” Nehring said. “The tricky part right now is that the legal requirements from state and federal departments are merely recommendations, not mandates.”
Both towns have recently made public statements assuring the public and government officials that its public water supplies are both safe to drink despite having minor traces of the chemical found in wells surrounding Devens. Ayer recently turned off one of its water wells located near Grove Pond due to its high level of PFAS detected and blended two wells with low chemical levels together to lessen the overall PFAS levels in the public water supply. The town is also preparing for temporary treatment at impacted water well heads and a PFAS removal treatment system at Grove Pond.
Mark Wetzel, superintendent of Ayer’s Department of Public Works, will be one of the experts at the meeting. He’ll be joined by professional engineer Rich Doherty, health-sciences professor Phil Brown and research scientist Laurel Schaider. Wetzel said the PFAS issue is an “emerging contaminant” that still requires attention.
“The contaminant is migrating and slowly creeping up in other town wells,” he said. “The state has issued guidelines on the chemicals and are now looking at setting a maximum contaminant level. There’s a lot of unanswered questions. We’re doing the best we can but we need to make sure that the levels are as low as they can be.”