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After distributing contaminated water, Haverhill company decides to close water operations

Spring Hill Dairy Farm bottled spring water for a number of retailers, including Whole Foods.Erin Clark for The Boston Globe/File

A Haverhill company announced Friday that it is closing down its water operations, more than a month after its spring water was found to have been tainted with toxic chemicals.

The decision came after state officials said that Spring Hill Dairy Farm was removing all of its gallon-sized jugs and other bottled water from supermarket shelves across Massachusetts. The water has been sold for years throughout New England, under different in-house brand names, at Whole Foods, CVS, Stop & Shop, Market Basket, Roche Brothers, and elsewhere.

The water, which was found to have elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known as PFAS, led the state Department of Public Health to issue a health advisory earlier this month that warned pregnant women, nursing mothers, and infants not to drink or cook with the water.


PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” have been linked to kidney cancer, low-infant birth weights, and a range of diseases.

“The deluge of unwarranted attention on our company, when PFAS is clearly a national problem with thousands of contributors, has made it impossible for us to keep operating,” Harold Rogers, one of the owners of the company, wrote in a letter to his customers Friday. “There have been many challenges over the years to doing business in Massachusetts. This past month has convinced us that, for our company, the negatives have come to outweigh the positives.”

The decision comes just days after the Globe reported that the water remained on supermarket shelves across New England despite the state health advisory. The advisory was issued after New Hampshire regulators discovered that the 117-year-old company’s water had been found to exceed the state’s new standards for the human-made chemicals.

Company officials insisted that the company is not recalling the water. In a statement that remained on its website Friday afternoon, the company officials wrote: “All bottles on shelves are in full compliance with current state and federal regulations. The advisory applies only to pregnant and lactating women and infants. If state or federal regulators believed there was a danger to the general public then they would not have issued an advisory which applies only to a very small segment of the population.”


But Ann Scales, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, said agency officials are “pleased the company is working with its customers to remove the products from store shelves.”

The company has “confirmed to the Department of Public Health that all products produced prior to July 22 have been voluntarily pulled from store shelves in Massachusetts and that products produced after July 22 . . . have been or are in the process of being removed from shelves,” she said in a statement.

The company installed a new filtration system that day, she said.

Neither the state nor the federal government has any laws or rules that compel a bottler to recall water that exceeds health standards for PFAS. Public health officials in Massachusetts, who said they had issued the health advisory “out of an abundance of caution,” said there was nothing the state could do to compel a recall.

The Environmental Protection Agency has no legally binding regulations on PFAS chemicals, but it 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. One part per trillion is about as much as a grain of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool.


Both the EPA and Massachusetts are considering making those limits more stringent, and scientists and public health advocates say the chemicals pose a broad risk in even small amounts.

In a study published last year, Harvard University researchers concluded that children should not consume water with concentrations of the chemicals greater than 1 part per trillion, calling the health risks “greatly underestimated.”

New Hampshire’s new rules advise residents not to drink water that exceeds 15 parts per trillion for one of the most common PFAS chemicals, and 12 for another.

New Hampshire found that concentrations of those chemicals exceeded 19 and 49 parts per trillion, respectively, in the water from Spring Hill. The total amount of PFAS in some of the bottled water exceeded 137 parts per trillion.

Also Friday, authorities in Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation told the Associated Press that they were working with Spring Hill and its distributors to ensure the water is removed from Vermont stores.

“The company is out of business and no longer shipping water anywhere,” said Avigail Kosowsky, a company spokeswoman.

Public health advocates had urged the company to remove the water from shelves and called on the states to do more to alert the public about the tainted water.

“This illustrates yet another negative impact of the production and use of PFAS in diverse products with a myriad of unintended consequences,” said Elsie M. Sunderland, a professor of environmental chemistry at Harvard.


Company officials initially said that the cause of the contamination was probably external, such as machinery. They later said that chemicals were found at the water’s source, even as they continued to distribute the water.

They also said the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water, had inspected the plant and found that Spring Hill had “met all the standards.” Nancy Sterling, another spokeswoman for Spring Hill, later said that the FDA did not test the water.

In his letter to customers, Rogers blamed the media, as well as changing government regulations, for his decision to close.

“The continued adverse media focusing on you, our customers, as well as fluctuations in regulations and levels among different states and the federal government, and more to come in the future, is of concern to our very small business,” he wrote. “For these reasons, we didn’t want to cause you any more uncertainty or undue attention and shall close our business.”

Rogers said he informed his more than 30 employees of the company’s decision to close.

“It was with great sadness and a heavy heart,” he said.

Sterling, a spokeswoman for the company, said that only the water operations will be shutting down. “The family farming operation will continue,’’ she said.

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