Public Health & Recreation

Rhode Island Tests for Harmful ‘Forever Chemicals’ But Lacks Uniform Requirements to Address Health Concerns

These man-made chemicals, commonly known as PFAS, are persistent in the environment and in the human body, don’t break down and can accumulate over time. (istock)

Rhode Island municipalities have not reported the dangerous levels of “forever chemicals” seeping into drinking water systems throughout the country, but testing for the substances here is not uniform and learning about contaminant levels in each city or town involves searching municipal websites or reading pamphlets produced annually.

Attempts to codify safe levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination continue in the General Assembly, leaving drinking water distribution systems without a single standard.

Water supply in Rhode Island is dispersed, with several cities and towns using centralized water systems, others relying on larger, neighboring communities for their supply and some smaller communities using local wells.

“Folks here have their own wells and would have to have them tested at their own expense,” Little Compton town administrator Antonio Teixeira said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website defines PFAS as a “group of man-made chemicals” including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanoic sulfonate (PFOS) and others manufactured and used in various industries worldwide, including in the United States beginning in the 1940s.

These chemicals, which are “very persistent in the environment and in the human body,” do not break down and can accumulate over time, leading to detrimental impacts on health, the according to the EPA. PFAS are in food packaging, fabric and carpeting and household products from paint to cleaning products. The chemicals also are found in drinking water, especially where PFAS groundwater contamination has occurred, such as communities with airports and military bases making frequent use of firefighting foam.

The EPA set a national PFAS health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (PPT) for drinking water, although the advisories do not carry any enforcement or regulatory power. The agency requires all municipalities to send annual consumer confidence reports advising residents of the levels of regulated and unregulated substances in drinking water, but PFAS is not among the substances with a yearly testing mandate.

In 2019, the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) asked public water system operators to test their sources to determine PFAS levels. The results from the individual operators were shared with residents and customers on websites and through the mail.

Now some municipalities and water system operators are holding off on further widespread PFAS testing while awaiting further guidance from the state.

North Kingstown’s water department director Tim Cranston said the town will wait for state officials to finalize “the exact slate of what PFAS chemicals they will want us to monitor.” Following any updates in guidance, the town intends to hire a certified laboratory qualified in PFAS analysis to sample all its wells.

“Upon receipt of that analysis, we will reach out again to our customer base and let them know of our findings,” Cranston said.

The House on June 17 passed a bill (H5356 Substitute A) sponsored by Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, to prevent PFAS from being used in food packaging. The measure was forwarded to the Senate, where Sen. James Seveney, D-Portsmouth, has sponsored a companion version (S0110).

Beyond the Statehouse, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, a coalition of about 70 advocacy groups and activists, announced in June that its three top legislative priorities for 2021 include pushing for passage of the Senate and House PFAS bills.

Municipal testing and reporting
Bill Descoteaux of the Cumberland Water Department noted PFAS are monitored in source water rather than water entering distribution system. Cumberland detected elevated PFAS levels at one of its wells, Abbott Run Valley Well 3, and subsequently took the well offline in November 2018, although the detected level was below the 70 PPT threshold.

Cumberland follows the EPA mandate to report testing results in its annual water quality report, which is posted on the town’s website and advertised through postcards sent to residents regardless of whether they are paying customers, Descoteaux said.

Emily Rizzo, a spokesperson for the city of Pawtucket, said there have been no PFAS detections in its reservoir, the city’s primary drinking water source. Officials detected PFAS compounds between 4 and 6 PPT, involving five PFAS compounds, in five out of eight community wells. Only one of those reached a level higher than 30 PPT.

“Since the great majority of our water comes from our reservoirs, we also have the ability to operate without certain wells or mix them with surface water to ensure the safety of our residents,” said Rizzo, who confirmed Pawtucket follows EPA regulations to report PFAS levels in consumer confidence reports.

The Rhode Island Water Resources Board provides a comprehensive map and list of water suppliers in the state on its website, which includes contact information and links to the 30 individual districts, boards, authorities, departments and divisions overseeing water service.

In Barrington, which receives water from the Bristol County Water Authority (BCWA), director of public works Alan Corvi summed up the situation for those serviced by larger communities or regional water authorities: “The town is not in the water supply business.”

Along with Barrington, Warren and Bristol also get their drinking water from the BCWA.

“There is no local source of drinking water as the Warren Reservoir was abandoned as a drinking water supply by BCWA,” Warren town manager Kate Michaud said.

The BCWA website explains the authority receives its water from the Scituate Reservoir managed by the Providence Water Supply Board.

The Providence Water Supply Board distributes water to eight wholesale customers including Bristol, East Providence, Greenville, Johnston, Lincoln, Smithfield, Warwick and Kent County, according to its website. The board’s 2020 water quality report indicated the presence of a limited number of regulated and unregulated substances, but the report did not include PFAS contaminants.

Middletown and the Portsmouth Water and Fire District are both wholesale customers of the Newport Department of Utilities Water Division. The division manages 170 miles of water main, 3,300 valves and 1,000 hydrants while also supplying water to the U.S. Navy, according to Newport Water.

Portsmouth district general manager and chief engineer Jessica Lynch said the water is treated and distributed by Newport but originates from the system’s nine reservoirs on Aquidneck Island and in Tiverton and Little Compton: North and South Easton ponds, Gardiner Pond, Paradise Pond, St. Mary’s Pond, Sisson Pond, the Lawton Valley Reservoir, Nonquit Pond and the Watson Reservoir.

Newport Water’s 2019 consumer confidence report, which was posted online and mailed to customers, said tests of effluent from two treatment plants detected PFAS chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS, at levels far below the EPA advisory threshold.

The Lawton Valley Treatment Plant in Portsmouth had levels of about 4 PPT for five types of PFAS compounds, while the level rose to 11.6 for PFOS, which the report said is used in “fire-fighting foam, circuit board etching acids, alkaline cleaners, floor polish and as pesticide active ingredient for insect bait traps.” Effluent testing of its Station 1 returned readings of about 4 PPT for the same six compounds.

The 2020 edition of the Newport Water consumer report said the water division “conducted 81,525 analyses to monitor 76 regulated drinking water contaminants and 87 unregulated drinking water contaminants.” But PFAS sampling was not conducted last year because the guidelines were not yet established by the state health department, according to Newport Water director of utilities Julia Forgue.

She said regulations for monitoring PFAS in reservoirs have not been implemented by DOH. She noted the only PFAS sampling Newport Water has done was in 2019, as requested by DOH.

The Kent County Water Authority (KCWA) serves Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich, West Warwick and Warwick, as well as parts of Cranston, Scituate and North Kingstown. A group of water users within Kent County not covered by the authority include some residents serviced by the Warwick Water Department and private well owners, according to the authority’s website.

David Simmons, KCWA’s executive director and chief engineer, said the utility recently tested for PFAS twice, the first as part of the DOH statewide study and the second to fulfill requirements under the EPA’s Fourth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, which required monitoring for 30 chemical contaminants between 2018 and 2020. The results were posted online and shared with residents in each instance by mail and hand delivery to homes.

In the first study, PFAS was detected in three of the five KCWA water sources, including 9.42 PPT in Spring Lake, 9.7 PPT in East Greenwich Well and 13.8 PPT in Mishnock Well 4, while none were found in Mishnock wells 3 and 5. The second analysis, shared in the authority’s 2019 consumer report, detected a system total of 13.8 PPT, with 6.14 PPT of PFOS and 9.7 PPT of PFOA.

Charlestown town administrator Mark Stankiewicz said his community is among those in which residents and businesses use private wells. There are a few public water supplies accessed by small residential areas and commercial buildings with common wells or serving more than 25 people daily, with DOH monitoring those sources, he said.

Stankiewicz announced June 18 that the Army Corps of Engineers notified Charlestown of elevated PFAS levels in wells at Ninigret Park, stressing the wells are currently not used for drinking water and “pose a low risk to the public.”

“However, to make it abundantly clear that the water from these wells is not suitable for drinking, signs have been posted at the bathrooms near Little Nini Pond notifying people not to use the water from the sinks to drink or re-fill their water bottles,” Stankiewicz wrote in an email to ecoRI News, explaining the federal agency would conduct additional testing on the wells during the week beginning June 21.

Stephen Mattscheck, Exeter’s director of public works, also said his town does not operate a public drinking water system providing home delivery, with all residents supplied from private wells.

Richmond’s small system is operated by LaFramboise Well Drilling Inc. of Thompson, Conn., according to town administrator Karen Pinch, who said the community is not currently testing for PFAS.

“I suspect until the RI Dept. of Health requires it, we wouldn’t test for these chemicals,” Pinch wrote in an email.

Data based on the 2019 testing showed low PFAS levels in some of North Kingstown’s wells, with all of those detections registering below the EPA’s 70 PPT threshold. The town water department’s newsletter, The Puddle, describes its testing efforts and provides links to other sources of PFAS information.

Bill Beauregard, Westerly’s assistant director of public works, said the town has been “proactive” in dealing with PFAS and communicating results in the annual consumer confidence report, which is posted on the municipal website and printed for distribution at town offices and mailed to every home regardless if they are on the water system. There are about 17,000 town water customers within the population of about 23,000, which he said can double between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

“We’re aggressive in the tracking of our own resources here,” said Beauregard, noting 12 wells were tested for 18 PFAS compounds in recent months. The analysis found 35 instances of 2 milligrams per liter, with the maximum reading at 6 mg per liter in one well. The town continues using a private laboratory for PFAS testing to “stay out in front of this issue,” he said.

“It’s our obligation to provide the best water we can,” Beauregard said. “That means we have to be educated.”

Regional and national action
As Rhode Island municipalities and water suppliers await further guidance from the health department and the Statehouse, recognition of PFAS dangers and attempts to quell their use continue throughout the country.

The Guardian reported in May that chemical companies DuPont and Daikin were aware for years of the health hazards of PFAS in food packaging but did not alert the Food and Drug Administration or the public. The newspaper also reported this month that forever chemicals are widely used in cosmetics produced by major brands in the United States and Canada.

A study published last month found PFAS in 100 percent of breast milk samples from 50 U.S. mothers tested by researchers, with levels of 39 different PFAS chemicals ranging from 52 PPT to more than 500 PPT.

Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill into law May 19 restricting the sale of consumer products containing PFAS, including firefighting foam, food packaging, stain-resistant treatments and ski wax. Liz Hitchcock, director of advocacy for Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, said Vermont’s action showed banning PFAS is a bipartisan issue.

“We can all agree that toxic chemicals don’t belong near us or in our environment. Congress must take action to ban PFAS and chemicals,” she said.

Legislation introduced June 8 by U.S. Senators Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. — the Clean Water for Military Families Act and the Filthy Fifty Act — directs the Department of Defense to identify and clean PFAS contamination at military installations. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., plans to introduce House versions of both bills.

A June 10 EPA announcement said the agency took three actions to strengthen PFAS protections, including a new reporting requirement for manufacturers and importers, the reversal of Trump administration guidance limiting the number of products affected by an EPA prohibition on a specific PFAS coating and the addition of three new PFAS chemicals to the Toxics Release Inventory.

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