Calling on Congress to reduce toxic chemicals in drinking water, Attorney General Maura Healey joined her counterparts in 21 states Tuesday in urging federal lawmakers to pass legislation to help states address their threat to public health.
The manmade chemicals, known as PFAS, are widespread and have been used for decades in products such as flame retardants, pans, pizza boxes, clothing, and furniture. But research in recent years has shown that the per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals are dangerous at very low concentrations. They have been linked to testicular and other cancers, low-infant birth weight, and a range of diseases.
In a letter, the attorneys general urged Congress to help state and local governments curb the costs of cleaning up drinking water supplies contaminated by PFAS, which are also known as “forever chemicals” because they never fully degrade.
“These toxic chemicals are putting the health of our firefighters, our military personnel, and our families in Massachusetts and across the country at serious risk,” Healey said in a statement. “We need Congress to act immediately.”
Groundwater wells on military installations have been shown to contain high levels of the chemicals, often as a result of a firefighting foam used there.
In Massachusetts, the chemicals have been found in levels that exceed federal guidelines in public water supplies in Ayer, Barnstable, Mashpee, and Westfield. The chemicals have also been found in the public water supplies in Danvers, Harvard, and Hudson.
The Environmental Protection Agency has no legally binding regulations on PFAS chemicals but recommends that municipalities alert the public if the two most common PFAS chemicals reach 70 parts per trillion. Massachusetts uses the same limit for five of the chemicals.
After high concentrations of PFAS were found last month in bottled water distributed by a Haverhill company to stores throughout New England, Healey also called for more testing of bottled water.
“The presence of these chemicals in drinking water can pose serious health risks to our state’s residents,” she said. “My office supports efforts to ensure that bottled water available in Massachusetts is tested and safe.”
Although lawmakers have proposed legislation that would require the EPA to impose stricter standards for the chemicals, the attorneys general urged them to act more quickly on several fronts.
They urged Congress to designate certain PFAS chemicals as “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund law so that residents could qualify for federal assistance to pay for cleanups, especially at or near military installations.
They also asked that legislation provide financial assistance to ensure the safety of drinking water supplies, especially in poor communities.
“Many public water providers do not have sufficient funding to address PFAS contamination,” they wrote, raising the concern that municipalities might be forced to raise water rates to recoup their costs.
The attorneys general also called on Congress to prohibit the use and storage of firefighting foam containing PFAS at federal facilities. Testing of nearly 2,700 groundwater wells on or around military installations in recent years has found that 60 percent contained high levels of the chemicals, according to the Department of Defense.
They also pressed lawmakers to pay for medical screening for PFAS exposure.
“Our citizens deserve to know about potential health threats, particularly those incurred on the job,” they wrote.
Residents are growing increasingly concerned about the safety of their water, they added.
“Without federal legislative action to assist states and communities that are responding to this burgeoning threat, the public may lose confidence in the safety of its drinking water sources, consumer products, and other routes of exposure,” they wrote.
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.