BOSTON – Offering blood testing for people in areas exposed to PFAS, additional funds for statewide research, education, and surveillance, and passing laws restricting the use of certain firefighting foam and food packaging were all part of a set of recommendations a top academic expert offered this week to a state task force investigating the impact of the chemicals in Massachusetts.
The advice, offered by Northeastern University Social Science Director Environmental Health Research Institute Director Phil Brown, comes as state legislators and stakeholders take a deep dive into the effect of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, on public health and the environment.
During a Tuesday morning hearing, members of the PFAS Interagency Task Force — co-chaired by Sen. Julian Cyr and Rep. Kate Hogan — focused on water and ground contamination ahead of issuing a report by Dec 31.
“Legislatures and health environmental agencies should be testing water in locations with likely contamination,” Brown said. “They should offer blood testing to people in exposed areas and proactively target testing, both for water and blood, in low-income and BIPOC communities, and they should in fact prioritize the EJ communities for remediation.”
PFAS is a group of chemicals that have been used since the 1950s to create stain- and water-resistant and non-stick products, according to the state. While they are more commonly used in consumer products like food packaging, outdoor clothing, and leather goods, the chemicals also appear in certain types of firefighting foam that can then seep into groundwater.
PFAS contamination has been an issue in several Nashoba Valley communities west of Lowell, including Ayer and other areas around Devens.
“And of course, we don’t know all the sources,” Brown said. “Originally, we thought mainly production facilities and industries that incorporate PFAS. Later, we started to see how extensive it was with AFFF firefighting foams. And then more recently, we started to see landfills, the wastewater treatment plants, sludge, food packaging, food grown on that sludge, and septic systems.”
The issue, experts and state officials say, is that the chemicals do not break down easily and stay in the environment for a long time. Exposure to at least one kind of PFAS can lead to thyroid diseases, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, and testicular cancer, among other things, according to information presented by Brown from the C8 Science Panel.
At the task force’s first meeting in early June, the head of the state Department of Environmental Protection recommended that state regulators expand PFAS surveillance to waste disposals, landfills, and the atmosphere.
Marc Nascarella, director of the Department of Public Health’s Environmental Toxicology Program, said some people are exposed to PFAS chemicals through drinking water that becomes contaminated mostly through point source solution from industrial facilities or areas where certain firefighting foam has been applied.
Massachusetts regulates maximum contaminant levels in drinking water for six PFAS variants at 20 parts per trillion. DEP found PFAS chemicals above that level in just over 50 public water systems, according to an online map created by the department.
“To give an example of what 20 parts per trillion would look like, that’s approximately equal to a grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” Nascarella said. “The Massachusetts drinking water standard is more stringent than the federal EPA guideline, and [Department of Environmental Protection] has also enforced PFAS at hazardous waste sites in Massachusetts.”
Brown said it’s good the state is regulating six PFAS variants but “we really need to be taking this to a higher level.”
“Many of the things that we see in replacement chemicals are the same problems that we’ve seen in the original ones,” he said. “So the compounds that have replaced the long chains, now that are short chains, have extensive contamination as well.”
Long- and short-chain PFAS refer to the number of atoms making up the chain in the molecule.
Dr. Laurel Schaider, a senior scientist at Silent Spring Institute, said blood testing for PFAS-impact communities is important for addressing the concerns of residents. She also said it is important to consider conducting longitudinal studies that evaluate health effects over people’s lifetime and additional testing of local foods in areas that have PFAS contamination.