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State regulators issue new restrictions on ‘forever chemicals’

Under the new rules, the state will require communities to take action to clean up their drinking water if the total concentration of six of the more common PFAS chemicals reaches 20 parts per trillion.
Under the new rules, the state will require communities to take action to clean up their drinking water if the total concentration of six of the more common PFAS chemicals reaches 20 parts per trillion.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2019

After years of research showing the dangers of so-called forever chemicals, state regulators Thursday joined a growing number of their counterparts in other states in issuing significant new limits on the human-made compounds in drinking water, a move hailed by environmental advocates.

The long-awaited rules come as per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known as PFAS, have been found in an increasing number of communities across the state. The chemicals have been linked to cancer, low infant birth weights, and a range of diseases.

Of 140 public water systems tested over the past year, 30 had more PFAS in their drinking water than is allowed under the new rules, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The testing, which was delayed as a result of the pandemic, has detected smaller amounts of the chemicals in 18 other public drinking water systems.

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“By setting stringent standards for PFAS in drinking water, we can ensure that all public water systems across the commonwealth are testing for these emerging contaminants,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement.

The rules, which are substantially tougher than the previous standards, are in some cases less stringent than similar rules passed by other states, such as Vermont and New Hampshire.

Under the new rules, the state will require communities to take action to clean up their drinking water if the total concentration of six of the more common PFAS chemicals reaches 20 parts per trillion. The rules require public water suppliers — those that serve more than 25 people every day for at least two months a year — to begin testing for the six chemicals next year.

Officials at the US Environmental Protection Agency, who have promised to release national drinking-water limits for the two most prevalent PFAS chemicals, currently maintain a health advisory that recommends municipalities alert the public if the two chemicals reach 70 parts per trillion.

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Massachusetts has used the same level for five of the most common PFAS chemicals.

By comparison, rules passed last year in New Hampshire require action if just one of the chemicals is found to exceed 11 parts per trillion. It sets specific limits on four of the chemicals, all under 20 parts per trillion.

Vermont’s rules, also passed last year, require communities to act if five of the chemicals are found to exceed concentrations of 20 parts per trillion.

With research suggesting that the chemicals could endanger human health at much lower amounts, state environmental officials added a provision in the new rules requiring them to review the standard every three years. The rules also require public water systems to inform their users if tests find that they exceed the new standard.

“We believe these standards are protective of public health, and they’re based on the best scientific information,” said Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. “Our goal is to make sure the water is fit and pure as soon as possible.”

Environmental advocates praised the new rules.

“These new drinking water rules will literally save lives,” said Sylvia Broude, executive director of Community Action Works, an advocacy group in Boston. “We applaud MassDEP for including a three-year review, knowing that the work doesn’t stop at regulating six chemicals out of thousands. We hope it will pave the way for regulating PFAS as a class, rather than a chemical by chemical approach.”

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Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, called the new rules “a major advance in safeguarding our water.”

The rules also require public water systems that find more than 10 parts per trillion of one of the chemicals to test their water every month.

To help communities with the costs of addressing elevated PFAS already found in their water, state officials said they will provide $1.9 million to public water systems, including those in Ayer, Westfield, Barnstable, Hyannis, Hudson, Millbury, Cummaquid, Acton, Easton, Devens, Braintree, Holbrook, and Randolph.

Under the new rules, large public water supplies — those serving 50,000 or more people — will be required to start testing their water in January. Those serving between 10,000 and 50,000 people will have to start testing in April, while those serving less than 10,000 people won’t be required to start testing until next October.

While supporting the new rules, some environmental advocates urged the state to do more, including taking legal action against longtime producers of the chemicals, such as DuPont and 3M.The chemicals, which were developed in the 1940s, have since been used in products from nonstick pans to pizza boxes.

Suuberg declined to comment on a potential lawsuit but said his department has been sharing information with the state attorney general’s office. Officials from the state attorney general’s office have said they’re monitoring the issue closely.

“We must not forget how we got into this toxic quagmire,” said Kyla Bennett, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in New England, an advocacy group. “For decades, manufacturers have been hiding the truth from us about the dangers of PFAS and the extent of the contamination … citizens, municipalities, and states should not be bearing the financial burden of cleaning up a mess they did not create.”

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David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.