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ENVIRONMENT

Advocates urge R.I. to regulate ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

The Conservation Law Foundation calls for Governor McKee to act following report of contamination in Cape Cod drinking water

Environmental advocates are urging Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee to regulate "forever chemicals" that can contaminate drinking water.
Environmental advocates are urging Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee to regulate "forever chemicals" that can contaminate drinking water.Jim Cole/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — Environmental advocates are calling for Governor Daniel J. McKee to adopt state regulations for “forever chemicals” that can contaminate drinking water.

The calls follow a new study that shows the main drinking water sources for tens of thousands of people on Cape Cod contain elevated levels of the toxic chemicals, which can come from firefighting foam, Teflon, and food packaging. Harvard University scientists report that watersheds around Mashpee have 40 times more PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) than new Massachusetts rules allow.

Rhode Island lacks similar regulations, but it is no stranger to PFAS contamination. In 2017, officials were forced to hand out bottled water after discovering that the Oakland Association water system in the rural town of Burrillville had elevated levels of PFAS, which have been linked to cancer, low infant birth weights, and suppression of the immune system.

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Former Governor Gina M. Raimondo’s administration had been working on PFAS regulations, but she just became President Joe Biden’s secretary of Commerce. So now, the Conservation Law Foundation is urging McKee to enact those rules.

“This is an important public health matter,” said James Crowley, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in Rhode Island. “It is long past time to take action, and we hope that the incoming administration will prioritize this and move ahead with regulations that are protective of public health.”

McKee, who had his inauguration ceremony on Sunday, “will take a closer look at that issue,” spokeswoman Andrea Palagi said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Representative June S. Speakman and her fellow Warren Democrat, Senator Walter S. Felag Jr., have introduced legislation that would set maximum PFAS contamination levels in drinking water and surface water, while also setting standards for PFAS monitoring at landfills.

Speakman said PFAS contamination has been found not just on Cape Cod but all over the country. “It shows me this is definitely something we need to pay attention to in Rhode Island,” she said. “It shows you there are forever chemicals we need to be afraid of for our health.”

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State Representative June S. Speakman, a Warren Democrat
State Representative June S. Speakman, a Warren DemocratRhode Island House of Representatives

Speakman said the public is becoming more aware of the dangers posed by PFAS contamination in part because of the 2019 film “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. She said environmental groups hosted a showing of the film at Providence Place mall in February 2020, and those in attendance included Representative K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat who is now the House speaker.

But the American Chemistry Council has opposed the legislation, saying it is “flawed and violates both basic scientific principles and standard administrative procedures.”

In a letter, the council’s Northeast senior director, Margaret Gorman, urged legislators to direct the state Department of Health to consider “the costs and benefits to affected parties” that would result from the standards.

Also, Gorman emphasized that the PFAS class includes a range of chemicals and products with widely varying physical and chemical properties.

“Because of this diversity, it is inaccurate to associate safety concerns that have been raised regarding a few PFASs with most other PFASs,” she wrote. “By some estimates, over 3,000 substances could be classified as PFASs based on their chemical structures, but only a fraction of those PFASs have any commercial use today.”

Crowley said, “The fact that there are a bunch of these things is not a reason to do nothing.” He noted the proposed regulations would target six of the more common PFAS chemicals, and he said the Department of Health would analyze whether or not to regulate the whole class of compounds.

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Right now, he said, the state follows federal advice by requiring people to stop drinking water if two PFAS compounds – PFOA and PFOS – are found in levels above 70 parts per trillion.

But nearby states have regulations that are stricter and have more teeth than advisories, Crowley said. For example, Massachusetts has new regulations that set a limit of 20 parts per trillion combined for six of the most common PFAS compounds, he said.

Vermont has already set a limit of 20 parts per trillion combined for five PFAS compounds, and New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, and Michigan have set standards for individual compounds at levels well below 20 parts per trillion.

In Massachusetts, contamination was found downstream from known sources of PFAS at Joint Base Cape Cod in Buzzards Bay and Barnstable County Fire/Rescue Training Academy in Barnstable. For years, both used a special foam to practice fighting fires, and the foam has since been found to have very high levels of PFAS.

Speakman said US Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, has pushed for provisions aimed at reducing the threat of PFAS chemicals in military operations. For example, one provision funds research and development for non-fluorine firefighting foam.

Crowley said these compounds are found in many places beyond military and firefighter training sites. They can leach out of landfills, and they have been detected in drinking water, groundwater, and surface waters throughout Rhode Island, he said.

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Drinking water systems serving 14 Rhode Island cities and towns – including North Providence, Pawtucket, Newport, Cumberland, and South Kingstown – have tested positive for PFAS at levels already declared unsafe in neighboring states, he said. Also, elevated levels have been detected in school water systems in Foster, Glocester, North Smithfield, and Scituate, he said.

“It’s sort of a public health perfect storm in that so many different products contain PFAS,” Crowley said. “They are very common and extremely persistent in the environment and in human bodies. It takes a long time to break down – that’s why they are named forever chemicals.”

Speakman said Representative Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat, has introduced legislation aimed at banning PFAS in food packaging. But in the meantime, the state needs to start regulating, measuring, and filtering out these chemicals to ensure that drinking water is safe, she said.

“This would not require rebuilding water systems in Rhode Island,” Speakman said. “It just requires testing, and if levels are high enough, putting in filtration systems of some sort. People can filter at home, too.”

In a Feb. 26 letter, the state Department of Health said it shares the concerns about the potential impact of PFAS on public water supplies.

The letter – signed by Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott and Department of Environmental Management Director Janet L. Coit – said, “Please know that RIDOH was moving to regulate these compounds before the state was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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The letter said Rhode Island was one of the first states to do the testing and analysis needed to assess the types and amounts of PFAS chemicals across our state – a key step in the development of regulations. And it said the state had commissioned an analysis that would be used in weighing the costs and benefits of regulations to control PFAS in drinking water.

“We look forward to working with you to establish drinking water standards for PFAS in Rhode Island,” Alexander-Scott and Coit wrote.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.