A state task force is calling on Massachusetts to regulate toxic chemicals known as PFAS in consumer products, provide funding to municipalities to clean up their water supplies, and conduct outreach efforts in impacted communities to ensure residents are aware of PFAS pollution.
The recommendations came as part of a report on how to address contamination by PFAS, a group of highly toxic manmade chemical compounds that have been found in many Massachusetts drinking water supplies. The task force, established as part of the fiscal 2021 budget, unanimously approved the recommendations on Wednesday.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have long been used in everything from cookware and food packaging to electronics and clothing and have been linked to an array of health problems, including hormone disruption, immune deficiency, and various cancers. Since they do not easily break down in the human body or the environment, they’re often called “forever chemicals.”
The report, which task force co-chair Representative Kate Hogan called a “massive undertaking” in a press conference, lays out 30 recommendations on how Massachusetts could identify and regulate sources of PFAS and clean up contamination.
“The extent of PFAS contamination is vast, and the time to act is now,” Hogan and Senator Julian Cyr, co-chair of the task force, wrote in a letter introducing the report.
The proposals include increasing funding of the state’s Clean Water Trust for municipalities, public water systems, and homeowners to remediate contamination; establishing limits on PFAS in industrial wastewater; phasing out the sale of consumer products that contain intentionally added PFAS by 2030; and developing a loan program to fund the cleanup of private wells and bringing back a state program to assist fire departments in replacing fire suppressants that contain PFAS.
Members of the task force say they are examining different legislative pathways to make their recommendations a reality. Some could potentially be added to legislation this session, Hogan said.
“We will certainly be coming forward with a full bill in the next session,” she added.
An October analysis of Massachusetts’ public water systems found that 70 percent of communities have detectable levels of the six most dangerous types of PFAS in ground and surface waters. A number of Massachusetts towns are spending significant money and staff time managing PFAS contamination, with some shelling out hundreds of thousands or even millions on high-tech filters.
Since 2018, the state has allocated nearly $30 million to address PFAS pollution and has made another $100 million available as loans, according to Cyr.
The report doesn’t say exactly how much its proposals would cost, but the task force says implementation wouldn’t come cheap.
“The price tag here overall is substantial, it’s very substantial,” said Cyr at Wednesday’s press event.
To pay for its recommendations, the task force — whose members include 19 lawmakers, state agency representatives, scholars, and other stakeholders — said Massachusetts could allocate more state funding for PFAS investigation and remediation. It also suggested using federal money from the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Massachusetts already has some PFAS-related regulations on the books. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection requires testing for 18 PFAS chemicals in all public drinking water systems, and in 2020, it instituted limits on six different types of PFAS in drinking water. The Department of Public Health also requires that all bottled water sold in Massachusetts comply with state and federal drinking water standards, including regulations on one kind of PFAS.
But in its new report, the task force urges the state to create its first-ever regulations on PFAS in consumer products. And since there are thousands of PFAS varieties, the body recommends regulating them as an entire class.
“An approach that requires evaluating PFAS on a chemical-by-chemical basis may delay efforts to protect public health and the environment,” Hogan wrote in an email.
She said this strategy could avoid “the ‘whack-a-mole’ approach, which may continue to expose people to potentially hazardous substances.” For example, a major source of PFAS contamination in Massachusetts is a particular kind of firefighting foam known as AFFF. The report notes that manufacturers have been producing alternatives to this foam, yet have sometimes substituted other kinds of PFAS.
Deirdre Cummings, legislative director at consumer protection advocacy group MASSPIRG, praised the report.
“I think it’s a broad and remarkable study that lays out the urgency of the problem, and provides a roadmap on how to begin to solve it,” she said.
But Kyla Bennett, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in New England, found it “disappointing.”
”I thought that the goals were wimpy ... and I thought the language was a little slippery,” she said.
She said she’d hoped the report would include more urgent timelines, including plans to ban some products that contain PFAS, like AAAS firefighting foam, immediately. She is also concerned that the focus on “intentionally-added” PFAS could allow some manufacturers to skirt regulations.
Sean Mitchell, deputy chief of Nantucket’s fire department, also hoped to see more urgency in the task force’s recommendations on firefighters’ protective equipment. The report says the state could require manufacturers to disclose when gear includes PFAS and ban them “once there are viable alternatives in the marketplace.” But Mitchell said that ban should happen now.
“Firefighters will continue to be exposed to PFAS-laden turnout gear until the industry is told to stop making it,” he said in a text message.