AHS AP Class tests for PFAS in Abington streams, ponds

The following is a report prepared by the Abington High School Advanced Placement Environmental Science Class this past spring. It details the results of a study conducted by the class into the amounts of PFAS found in various water bodies around Abington. The class presented its findings to the Abington School Committee on May 23. Abington News will have additional reporting at the conclusion of this special report.

The members of the AP Environmental Science Class who participated in this project were: Vivian Bonner, Jacob Boyle, Madison Carini, Andrew Dunlop, Owen Dwyer, Sarah Flanagan, Maggie Hardy, Amy Long, Kayden Lynch, Delaney McCann, Adam Nash, Aoife Queally, Owen Roakley, Kayla Sullivan, Benjamin Gouthro, Acadia Manley, Julia Mendes, and Cameron Ranous. Nash wrote this article. 

On April 13th, students of the Abington High School Advanced Placement Environmental Science class went to several freshwater bodies in Abington and Rockland to test the water for a class of chemicals known as PFAS. The project was funded by a grant from the Abington Education Foundation. 

PFAS, or Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, are a group of thousands of similar kinds of synthetic chemicals that were first created in the 1930’s. By 1947, they were being mass manufactured and used in various products to repel water and grease. Because of their effectiveness, PFAS have been widely incorporated into many common household and industrial products, such as firefighting foams, cookware, carpets and furniture, and food packaging. 

PFAS testing locations around Abington. Map provided by AHS AP Environmental Science Class.

In 2005, PFAS were linked to several types of cancer, liver damage to animals and people, and birth defects.The use of Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFAO, and Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, two types of PFAS, were officially banned in food contact products in the United States in November 2016. 

It has been learned that due to their heavy use, PFAS are widespread in the environment. Because they take 1,000 years to break down naturally, they are considered “forever chemicals.”

Using new water testing kits from Cyclopure, the AP class collected water samples from 13 different locations in Abington, including streams, ponds, and stormwater outfalls to test for 55 different kinds of PFAS. Drinking water supplies are tested for 11 of these kinds of PFAS. 

Cyclopure’s test kits use DEXSORB®+ filters, which are corn-based, to capture PFAS. By measuring PFAS concentrations in streams, ponds, and stormwater outfalls, one may be able to determine what areas of town may have high levels of PFAS in the ground and groundwater. 

Four of our test sites were in North Abington, near Union Point: French Stream 1, French Stream 2, Rockland Town Forest, Thompson’s Pond. Three of the sites were along the Shumatuscacant River: Shumatuscacant River at Beaver Brook, the Adams Street Bridge, and the Central Street Bridge. One site was located at Island Grove: Island Grove Memorial Bridge. Four sites were at Ames Nowell State Park: Cleveland Pond Site 1, Cleveland Pond Site 2, Linwood Street Outfall, and Beaver Brook Outfall. And one site was behind Abington High School: AHS Outfall Pipe.

PFAS concentrations were measured in parts per trillion (PPT) which is equivalent to nanograms per liter.

Test sites near the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station had by far the highest PFAS concentrations for both the 11 and 55 kinds of PFAS tested.  These sites included areas along French Stream and in Rockland Town Forest, which had PFAS concentrations ranging from 59.4 PPT to 207.8 PPT of 11 kinds of PFAS and 62.4 to 382 PPT of 55 kinds of PFAS. 

By comparison, municipal water supplies in Massachusetts are required to send out notices to customers if PFAs levels are greater than 20 PPT

PFAS test results from around town (Source: AHS AP Environmental Science class)

Another area that had high PFAS concentrations overall was the outfall stream behind Abington High School. 

Low PFAS levels were found around Ames Nowell State Park with concentrations not exceeding 10 PPT in the Cleveland Pond test sites or in Beaver Brook as it flows out the pond heading south. 

The results of PFAS concentrations being high in North Abington were expected because this area is close in proximity to the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, which used firefighting foam during emergency training exercises. Firefighting foam is known to have high concentrations of PFAS. The area behind Abington High School having the second highest concentration of PFAS was not expected as the area has not been home to industrial uses or landfills. 

The Cyclopure Test kits use technology and methods that have been validated to meet EPA standards but cannot be used to make policy decisions because Cyclopure’s labs are not yet government certified. Regardless, these results could be used to support the need for further investigating the areas found to have high PFAS in Abington and to demonstrate the value in testing freshwater bodies for PFAS.

Abington’s municipal water department is one of dozens around Massachusetts racing to address PFAS in the groundwater, now that the link between long-term exposure to the “forever chemicals” and chronic illnesses has strengthened. Massachusetts in 2020 reduced the maximum allowed levels of PFAS from 75 PPT to 20 PPT. Water companies are now under the gun to reduce the amount of PFAS in the water – however, that typically requires a multi-million treatment plant retrofitting project.

The Abington/Rockland Joint Water Works is currently accepting bids for a $30 million treatment plant improvement project. Superintendent Kristel Cameron told the Abington Board of Selectmen she expects to award the contract for the work this fall. It will mainly focus on rehabbing the Hannigan Treatment Plant in Rockland, where the concentration of PFAS is the highest.    

Abington receives most of its drinking water from the Great Sandy Bottom Pond treatment plant and groundwells off Myers Avenue. PFAS levels coming out of the pond, which has been protected for decades, is very low. The Myers Avenue treatment facility recently underwent a partial rehab, which included installing on a trial basis an upgraded filtration system that uses carbon-based materials. Water coming from that plant also currently meets state PFAS limits.

Cameron told selectmen that most of Abington’s residents drink water from those two sources. However, depending on changes in water pressure, water from the Hannigan Plant could make its way into Abington homes and businesses. That’s why PFAS notices are sent out to the entire system, not just customers of the Hannigan plant. 

It’s unclear where the PFAS found in the Rockland reservoir comes from. The reservoir is outside the former air base watershed. Other industrial businesses were located within the reservoir watershed but no culprit has been identified to date.   

 The treatment plant improvement projects will take at least a year to complete. 

Corbett said she hopes to repeat the test again next spring.

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