PROVIDENCE — With Massachusetts towns finding toxic chemicals in their drinking water, environmental advocates are stepping up the pressure for Rhode Island to adopt regulations for the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
Massachusetts enacted new safety regulations last fall, and 20 percent of public water sources that have done testing report PFAS concentrations above what state regulations allow, prompting some towns there to distribute bottled water or install filtration systems.
James Crowley, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in Rhode Island, said the test results in Massachusetts underscore the urgency for Rhode Island to begin regulating toxic chemicals, which can come from firefighting foam, Teflon, and food packaging, among other sources.
“Several of our neighboring states have these regulations,” Crowley said Thursday. “We think it’s past time for Rhode Island to put regulations in place as well.”
“The full extent of the problem is becoming more obvious every day,” said Representative June S. Speakman, a Warren Democrat. “So it’s time for Rhode Island to do something.”
A spokesman for the state Department of Health, Joseph Wendelken, said the department began developing PFAS regulations before the COVID-19 pandemic began. “We are working with the governor’s office on drafting PFAS regulations, and hope to have them available for public comment soon,” he said.
But Speakman said Massachusetts managed to enact PFAS regulations while responding to the pandemic, and she has introduced a bill that would set maximum PFAS contamination levels in drinking water and surface water, while also setting standards for PFAS monitoring at landfills.
“The Rhode Island Department of Health is in process of writing regulations, but my preference is to embed the process in law,” Speakman said. She said she wants communities to know what levels of PFAS chemicals are in their drinking water so they can take steps such as using filters.
Speakman said she is not surprised that Massachusetts towns are finding the chemicals in their water. “It is everywhere,” she said, “and we were not aware of the ways it has moved into the public water supply.”
Wendelken noted that human exposure to PFAS is widespread. “Most people in the U.S. have measurable amounts of PFAS in their blood,” he said. “In fact, it is unlikely that anyone, even if they did not drink contaminated water, will have a level of ‘zero’ PFAS in their blood.”
Rhode Island was one of the first states to do widespread testing for PFAS chemicals, Wendelken said. “So we’re in a good place to develop regulatory standards,” he said.
Rhode Island now follows federal guidance by requiring people to stop drinking water if two PFAS compounds – PFOA and PFOS – are found in levels above 70 parts per trillion. But Massachusetts sets a limit of 20 parts per trillion combined for six of the most common PFAS compounds, and Vermont sets a limit of 20 parts per trillion combined for five PFAS compounds.
According to a Department of Health report from February, Rhode Island has 13 public water systems where the combined level of five PFAS compounds exceed 20 parts per trillion. That represent 15 percent of the water systems that have been tested.
The water systems with five PFAS compounds exceeding 20 parts per trillion included two wells at the University of Rhode Island, plus water systems for the Captain Isaac Paine Elementary School in Foster, Scituate Middle/High School, North Smithfield Junior/Senior High School, and the West Glocester Elementary School.
“It is concerning,” Crowley said. “It means children are drinking it.”
In 2017, officials in Burrillville handed out bottled water after discovering that the Oakland Association water system had elevated levels of PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, low infant birth weights, and suppression of the immune system.
But Crowley emphasized that the state only takes such actions when PFAS levels exceed 70 parts per trillion. “So that means those chemicals could be found at 60 parts per trillion – three times the allowable level in Vermont and Massachusetts – and nothing would be done,” he said.
Speakman said she is also concerned about a Globe report that PFAS compounds have been found in a pesticide that Massachusetts officials used to spray millions of acres from the air and ground to try to kill mosquitoes and curb the spread of Eastern equine encephalitis. The PFAS leached into the pesticide from its packaging.
The Globe has reported that Pepperell and a dozen other Massachusetts municipalities are taking advantage of a new law that allows communities to request the state’s permission to forgo pesticide spraying.
Speakman said she and Representative Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat, are trying to find out if Rhode Island conducted aerial spraying with pesticide that contained PFAS chemicals. She recognizes the need to combat Eastern equine encephalitis, but she said, “You are trying to solve one public health problem and possibly creating another.”
On Thursday night, Speakman said state environmental officials told her that in 2019 Rhode Island conducted an aerial application of Anvil, the same type of pesticide used in Massachusetts, to reduce the spread of Eastern equine encephalitis. That was the first such aerial application in Rhode Island in at least 20 years, aside from an annual smaller-scale application in Westerly, they said.
“We think it is likely that the pesticide used in Rhode Island in 2019 was transported in containers that contained PFAS and that very small amounts of PFAS entered the environment as a result,” state environmental officials told Speakman. “We feel confident that only a very small amount of PFAS would have entered the environment because the application rates of the Anvil product are so small.”
On May 17, Conservation Law Foundation senior attorney and interim vice president Margaret Curran wrote to state Department of Environmental Management director Janet L. Coit, warning about pesticides contaminated with “forever chemicals.”
Recent tests by the US Environmental Protection Agency and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility have shown “alarmingly high concentrations of PFAS in pesticide products registered and used in Rhode Island,” the letter said.
The Conservation Law Foundation called for state officials to “prohibit or suspend distribution and use of Anvil, Mavrik, Permanone, and any other pesticides shown to contain PFAS” and to develop a plan to test all pesticide products registered in Rhode Island for PFAS contamination.