AYER — Federal support could be on the way for local cities and towns, including several in the Nashoba Valley, confronting public water supplies contaminated with chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021. 3rd District Rep. Lori Trahan used her position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to help introduce and guide the legislation. PFAS contamination has occupied a top spot on Trahan’s punch list since taking office in 2019.
Shortly after Trahan was sworn-in, Ayer Town Manager Robert Pontbriand and Department of Public Works officials asked for assistance in confronting the issue. The town first discovered PFAS contamination in 2016 and was able to begin treating for it in 2020.
However, Ayer was not unique in seeing PFAS contamination.
Trahan recognized the strain that mitigation efforts place on local communities. In a smaller town like Ayer, the town has already spent $12 million in PFAS mitigation efforts. Additionally, Trahan is concerned about the health implications of PFAS contamination.
Research from the federal Agency for Toxic Disease and Substances Registry suggests that high levels of certain PFAS contamination has been linked to several health concerns including: increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, small decreases in infant birth weights, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.
Elizabeth Harriman, deputy director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell, said PFAS are manmade chemicals. Although they have been in use for many years, researchers are becoming more aware about their prevalence in the environment and health implications.
“PFAS … are man-made chemicals that include carbon chains with fluorine atoms bonded to them,” Harriman said in an email. “The bond between the fluorine and the carbon is extraordinarily strong; they don’t break down under ordinary environmental conditions, which is why they are commonly referred to as ‘forever chemicals.’”
Throughout the Nashoba Valley, some residents have raised concerns about contamination stemming from the former Army installation Fort Devens. In recent years, the Army has upped its cleanup efforts and revived public interfacing with the Devens Restoration Advisory Board.
However, Trahan said the issue is one that must be addressed regardless of source. Trahan discussed the issue with the newspaper earlier this week.
“What the recent reporting of contaminated communities has shown is that the third district is disproportionately affected by PFAS contamination,” Trahan said. “Including in places like Chelmsford, Littleton, Acton and beyond. Whether that’s because of the proximity to former Department of Defense sites which we know have historically led to increased PFAS contamination or because of a combination of issues its not something we can let go on unaddressed.”
Harriman said the source of the contamination can stem from “water and stain repellents” used on outdoor wear, “surfactants” like firefighting foams, “floroupolymers” including teflon and nonstick durable coatings, in addition to airports, military bases and firefighting training facilities.
One of the challenges presented with PFAS mitigation and prevention efforts has been each state taking a different approach. Ayer Public Works Superintendent Mark Wetzel hopes federal legislation can provide consistency on that front.
“When each state is doing their own thing, what’s happening is we’re rushing into solutions that we’re not really sure are the best solutions,” Wetzel said. “We’re all trying to do the same thing but we’re not all working as a team on it.”
As each state operates with different, or in some cases no PFAS standards, monitoring protocols and regulations, Wetzel finds himself unable to answer some important questions on the public’s mind.
“One of the most difficult parts of my job is when people call me and (ask) ‘I saw your notice, we have PFAS in the water, is the water safe to drink?’” Wetzel said. “That’s a really hard question to answer because number one I’m not a toxicologist or a health professional — I’m an engineer. But there hasn’t been enough of the science developed to see what the long-term impacts are.”
As Ayer mitigates PFAS contamination, it is still a matter of perfecting the science. Wetzel said they have seen the chemistry of the water change, causing “slightly higher” levels of lead and copper. His department has worked to quickly address that too so it’s not “trading one problem for another.”
Trahan said Massachusetts has set an example by acknowledging it takes a “whole of government” approach to respond to PFAS contamination. She pointed to efforts by state Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow, on PFAS in the state Legislature and efforts to create an inter-agency PFAS task force.
“We need other states to do the same,” Trahan said. “We can’t have one state treating this threat with the urgency necessary and others failing to do the same and I think that’s where the federal standards required by the PFAS Action Act will be really important.”
If passed, the PFAS Action Act of 2021 would set a new federal drinking water standard. Trahan said the new standard in Massachusetts has led to an increased awareness about the prevalence of the problem, with more than 50 communities reporting elevated contamination levels.
Among other steps the legislation would take are: requiring the cleanup of sites contaminated with the two most hazardous PFAS chemicals, identifying health risks by requiring comprehensive testing and reporting for all PFAS, requiring the federal Environmental Protection Agency to develop a website with up-to-date, easy-to-access information and provide grants to impacted water systems. It would also create a voluntary label for PFAS-free cookware and provide guidance for first responders to limit their exposure.
The legislation passed the House with 23 Republican votes and Trahan is “optimistic” as it heads to the Senate. She believes this is an issue that goes beyond party lines and is also encouraged by early support by the administration of President Biden. Trahan added safe drinking water should be “central” to ongoing infrastructure discussions.
Trahan also pointed to Littleton’s new treatment facility, which opened earlier this summer. The facility was made possible in part because of a low-interest loan from the state’s revolving fund, a model that the federal legislation is also seeking to use.