PFAS levels in water again rise above limits

The amount of so-called forever chemicals in part of the town’s water system again tested above allowable limits, according to a notification from the Abington/Rockland Joint Water Works.

While the water department is planning a major upgrade to address the problem, ground won’t break until next year. In the meantime residents can fill up containers with better quality water at the department’s Centre Avenue headquarters for free.

Municipal water departments are required to publicly disclose when a family of chemicals known as PFAS is detected in levels greater than 20 parts per trillion. July’s test found 30.9 parts per trillion, which is the single highest monthly level reported this year.

PFAS levels in the last quarter of 2021 and first quarter of 2022 fell below the mandated disclosure level. However, the water system averaged 23 parts per trillion between April and June of 2022.

Joint Water Works Superintendent Kristel Cameron said the region’s severe drought, which has significantly lowered reservoir levels, may be a contributing factor to the recent increase.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, know as PFAS, are found in a wide range of products ranging from firefighting foam and fertilizer, to non-stick cookware and paper food packaging. Unlike other chemical groups, PFAS don’t breakdown easily, which is why they’re known as “forever chemicals,” and can linger in the human body. Industrial manufacturers started using PFAS in products in the 1930s, meaning the chemicals have been in water supplies for decades. Only recently has research established a clear link between longterm PFAS exposure and a range of health problems.

Dr. Joseph Braun, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University, and the insitution’s director of the  Center for Children’s Environmental Health was quoted recently in a university publication saying it’s no longer if PFAS impacts public health, but how.

“There are multiple research groups around the country and the world that are finding more and more ways that exposure to these chemicals not only impacts the health of individuals but also their offspring,” he said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s standard is 70 parts per trillion, however, it’s merely a guideline and not an enforceable cap. Massachusetts recently lowered its cap from 70 parts per trillion to 20 parts — making it one of the strictest regulations in the country.

So far public water systems that serve 88 cities and towns across the state have reported higher than allowable amounts of PFAS, including many on the South Shore and Cape Cod. The City of Cambridge recently announced it would source its drinking water from the MWRA while it tries to reduce PFAS levels in its water system.

A map compiled by the Mass. Sierra Club showing communities in Massachusetts impacted by PFAS in drinking water supplies. Abington is in white because its results are lumped with Rockland.

The MWRA is currently not an option for Abington as the nearest connection is located in Braintree.

PFAS is different from other types of water supply contamination because the negative impacts can take years or decades to accumulate in otherwise healthy adults. By comparison, water contaminated with e coli, a bacteria, could make some one who consumes it ill quickly.

The source of the contamination appears to only be near the Hingham Street reservoir in Rockland. Cameron said PFAS levels at the system’s Great Sandy Bottom Treatment Plant in Pembroke, which provides the majority of water to Abington, “has consistently tested well below the limit.” The system’s smaller Myers Avenue treatment plant was recently renovated and outfitted with a new high-tech carbon filter. That filter, which is part of a demonstration project, has been successful at removing PFAS from the water, according to Cameron.

As a short term fix, the Joint Water Works last year tried using a temporary powdered activated carbon filtration treatment at the Hingham Street plant, but it proved not to work.

The only permanent fix involves a major overhaul of the Hingham Street plant – which is already in the design and permitting stages, Cameron said. The work will involve building a large addition onto the facility and adding granular activated carbon filters, similar to the one that has been effective at Myers Avenue.

“The design must be submitted by October of this year to [the state Department of Environmental Protection],” Cameron said. “Then DEP has time to review and make comments/changes to the design. Pending that there are no setbacks in the schedule etc, it appears that construction will be underway in 2023.”

Both Abington and Rockland town meetings have the Joint Water Works permission to spend $26 million on the project, which will also feature upgrades to the Great Sandy Bottom plant, and add a second granular carbon activated filter to the Myers Avenue plant.

Abington Selectmen Chairman Alex Bezanson said he hopes the next state Attorney General will lead a class action suit on behalf of water departments impacted by PFAS against those responsible for the groundwater contamination.

“The town should not have to be paying $13 million for a filter,” he said. “This is not a problem we created.”

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