Public Health & Recreation

Data Show Widespread Toxic Chemical Contamination Across Rhode Island and Massachusetts


The areas shaded gray show Rhode Island communities untested because their water sources are outside of the municipality. Green shows no PFAS detected, including on Portsmouth’s Prudence Island. Yellow shows total PFAS detected below 20 parts per trillion and red shows total PFAS detected above 20. Cream means no testing has yet been done. (Massachusetts Sierra Club)

Clint Richmond, the toxics policy lead at the Massachusetts Sierra Club, has been keeping a concerned eye on a group of manufactured chemicals linked to cancer that coat food packaging, fabrics, and waterproof clothing. He and others are alarmed at the extent to which these chemicals have seeped into drinking water supplies in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” are emitted daily from industrial uses, and are used in countless consumer products with little oversight. They can leach into surface and ground waters from airports, landfills, and military bases.

A 2020 white paper authored by a group of scientists detailed more than 200 uses of PFAS in 64 industrial areas, including mining, plastics production, printing, watchmaking, car manufacturing, and air-conditioning.

These compounds repel both water and oils, which has led to widespread use in consumer products. PFAS are used in electronics, firefighting foam, anti-fogging sprays, waxes, microwave popcorn bags and some pizza boxes, to name just a handful of items. They have been found in indoor air and in bottled water.

Even in small amounts, PFAS can harm human health. Since these ubiquitous chemicals are known to persist in the environment, and in our bloodstreams — hence the moniker “forever,” as these compounds suffer no degradation in light or air or through biological processes — and are highly mobile, their contamination is spreading through soil into ground and surface waters and accumulating in fish, shellfish, wildlife, and crops.

Richmond and his Sierra Club team have been collecting data through Freedom of Information Act requests. The resident of Brookline, Mass., who has a quantitative analysis background has been studying the national problem for the past three years, mostly from a policy point of view.

The areas shaded gray show Rhode Island communities untested because their water sources are outside of the municipality. Green shows no PFAS detected, including on Portsmouth’s Prudence Island. Yellow shows PFAS5 detected below 20 parts per trillion and red shows PFAS5 detected above 20. Cream means no testing has yet been done. (Massachusetts Sierra Club)

In Rhode Island, they found that from August 2017 to the present, the Department of Health has conducted 232 tests for PFAS in 87 public water systems in 26 municipalities — 67 percent of the state’s 39 cities and towns. Samples have been taken mostly from raw-water sources such as wells and reservoirs, but also from finished drinking water from treatment plants. Testing has been sparse since 2019, however.

That year, the Conservation Law Foundation petitioned the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) to establish drinking water regulations to protect the public from these chemicals.

Richmond said the purpose of his group’s work is to highlight the amount and degree of environmental contamination from PFAS in both states. He said the analysis is less about exposure to people and more about the slow poisoning of drinking water supplies and the environment.

He noted that while the nationwide focus has mainly been on the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), RIDOH has also highlighted three other PFAS chemicals that it refers to as the PFAS5: perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS); perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA); and perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA).

PFOS have been found in 70 Rhode Island wells at 23 systems at up to 100 ppt, according to RIDOH test results. PFOA have been found in 86 wells at 30 systems at up to 42 ppt; PFHxS in 20 wells at eight systems, up to 32 ppt; PFNA in 16 wells at five systems, up to 16 ppt; and PFHpA in 32 wells at 10 systems, up to 23 ppt.

Numerous studies by the EPA, the Water Research Foundation, and state agencies have determined that conventional water treatment processes are not capable of effective removal of PFAS contaminants, according to a 2020 report commissioned by RIDOH.

Treatment technologies that are currently commercially available, with a quantifiable record of performance, include granular activated carbon, anion exchange, and reverse osmosis. There also can be the option of an alternative water supply or connecting to another existing public water system that does not contain PFAS contamination.

Some public health agencies and states believe the EPA recommendation of 70 ppt is not protective enough for all age groups, especially for pregnant women and infants.

For instance, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a department within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, advises that drinking water limits should be much lower for children: 21 ppt for PFOA and 14 ppt for PFOS.

The maximum contaminant level in Massachusetts for its listed six PFAS is 20 ppt. Vermont has implemented the same standard for five PFAS chemicals. Rhode Island follows the federal advisory.

“Rhode Island needs to regulate these chemicals because they do not break down naturally, persist in ecosystems, and are linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity, and other health impacts even in extremely small amounts,” said Sonya Lunder, the Sierra Club’s senior toxics policy advisor.

A recent Sierra Club analysis of PFAS in Rhode Island drinking water found one or more PFAS were detected in 22 cities and towns, or 81 percent of the municipalities tested. Rhode Island’s PFAS5 were detected in 20 of these municipalities. Of these, 15 were above the Massachusetts limit of 20 ppt.

Providence Water supplies about 60 percent of Rhode Island, including the state’s capital, with its drinking water via the Scituate Reservoir. No PFAS were detected in the state’s largest freshwater body, according to RIDOH.

Burrillville, Charlestown, Glocester, and North Providence have the highest concentration of PFAS contamination.

“No one should be drinking water that has 20 parts per trillion of PFAS or higher here in 2022,” said Richmond, who has been invited to testify as an expert at several Massachusetts hearings about PFAS. “Let’s get busy cleaning up the systems that are the most contaminated.”

A map of the 261 cities and towns the state has tested for PFAS. Green indicates 0 parts per trillion, yellow indicates less than 20.5 ppt, and red indicates greater than 20.5 ppt. White means those municipalities weren’t tested. (Massachusetts Sierra Club)

Shared waters
Last fall the Massachusetts Sierra Club released a similar analysis to the one recently compiled for Rhode Island. The Bay State analysis found widespread PFAS contamination throughout the commonwealth in ground and surface waters used for drinking, with 70 percent of communities tested with detectable levels of the six PFAS the state is trying to limit.

From 2016 to Oct. 17 of last year, 591 water systems in 259 municipalities have been tested, with 75 systems in 56 communities exceeding the Massachusetts limits for the six regulated PFAS compounds. The list of regulated chemicals includes the same PFAS5 in Rhode Island plus perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA).

Ayer, Barnstable, Hudson, Mashpee, Stow, and Westfield have some of the highest concentration of PFAS contamination.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) provides drinking water to 35 municipalities, including Boston, via the Wachusett Reservoir, the Quabbin Reservoir, and the Ware River. MWRA water, which goes to some 3 million people, tested at 3 ppt. The public authority also provides partial water to 15 municipalities and emergency backup to three others.

The Sierra Club analysis of Massachusetts data follows reports of PFAS contamination in local rivers and in Barnstable ponds. To help understand the reach of the problem, Massachusetts has begun testing recreational waters for PFAS contamination.

“The existing data already demonstrates the need to protect the public by preventing further contamination through additional research, legislation, and state regulation,” Massachusetts Sierra Club director Deb Pasternak said when the analysis was released.

In October 2020, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection established its drinking water standard for PFAS, requiring testing for 18 PFAS in all public drinking water systems and setting a combined limit for the six most concerning PFAS chemicals at 20 ppt.

RIDOH has the authority to implement similar standards, but the agency is “awaiting guidance from the federal government on what funding will be coming available to implement new requirements,” according to spokesperson Joseph Wendelken.

Michael Byrns, RIDOH’s principal environmental health risk assessment toxicologist, has concluded that reducing PFAS levels in drinking water would benefit human health, through better immune function — the chemicals reduce the amounts of antibodies found in the blood of both humans and animals — and lower cholesterol. Children younger than 2 are most at risk from exposure, according to Byrns.

“The highest exposures to PFAS occur during the first two years of life,” he wrote. “Formula-fed infants consume more water for their size than adults, and PFAS exposure is even higher among breastfed infants.”

A 2020 report he authored also predicted savings of $150,000 in hospitalization costs for municipal water users and 2.3 fewer deaths from heart disease annually if a limit of 2 ppt was adopted. Those savings and prevented death estimates decrease as PFAS caps increase.

Byrns noted “most of the thousands of PFAS compounds on the market today have never been tested for their toxicity.”

The total installation costs for treatment systems across the state could range from $6 million to $19 million for a 20-ppt cap, according to RIDOH. The costs could range from $31 million to $44 million for a 10-ppt cap. A 2-ppt limit would not be cost-justifiable and may not be feasible.

Most of the health effects from PFAS relate to ingestion, so consumption of contaminated water becomes the issue the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management will be addressing in its environmental protection programs, according to agency spokesperson Michael Healey, until other health impacts, such as inhalation, are discovered or defined.

“Once a drinking water standard is set by EPA or RIDOH, we would use those numbers to develop environmental standards ‘upstream’ for media like groundwater, soil, and surface water,” he wrote in an email to ecoRI News.

During this General Assembly session, Rhode Island lawmakers are again expected to file bills that would require RIDOH to establish maximum contaminate levels of PFAS in drinking water.

Last year a pair of bills would have prohibited the use of forever chemicals in food packaging (H5356A and S0110) and another would have established maximum contaminant levels in drinking, surface, and ground waters (H5523 and S0107A).

Richmond said Rhode Island needs to take action on removing PFAS from food packing.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to phase out the use of PFAS,” he said.

During the 2020 General Assembly session, two bills were introduced that would have mandated immediate action be taken, by requiring municipal water systems to treat their water or offer an alternative source of drinking water if PFAS levels exceeded 20 ppt.

The American Chemistry Council opposed both bills. Several municipal water boards also opposed the legislation, saying the state was capable of addressing the problem.

All of Rhode Island’s efforts from the past few years have died in committee or been held for further study.

Lasting legacy
PFAS can be detected in most people’s blood and organs in the United States, according to a 2019 study and other research. These forever chemicals have been linked to a variety of health problems, including kidney and testicular cancer, immune system damage, and high cholesterol.

These manufactured substances may have already contaminated the drinking water of more than 200 million people in the United States at a concentration of 1 ppt or higher, according to the Environmental Working Group.

A Harvard University study published in 2013 suggested a safe level of PFAS is closer to only 1 ppt — roughly a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Joseph Braun, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University, is researching the links between gestational PFAS exposure and maladies such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, and chronic renal failure. He has noted accumulating evidence shows that exposure to PFAS during gestation — a critical period of development — may increase the childhood risk of these diseases.

Despite mounting evidence of PFAS contamination and its growing reach, federal and state agencies for the most part have taken little action to limit the amount allowed in drinking water.

While some of the more dangerous forever chemicals, such as PFOA and PFOS, are no longer manufactured in the United States — they are, however, still produced internationally and can be imported in consumer goods — there are thousands of related compounds in wide use and the number continues to increase. There may be as many as 5,000 on the market today.

Awareness of and concern about PFAS dangers is growing. A 2018 documentary titled The Devil We Know chronicles the contamination of the Ohio River around Parkersburg, W.Va., for the past 70 years. The documentary and the community problem was the subject of the 2019 film Dark Waters.

The 2020 documentary No Defense highlights PFAS contamination originating from a former Air Force base in Michigan. This past fall, John Oliver discussed PFAS concerns on his HBO show.

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  1. Pardon my language but we are so screwed! Technical advances are great but we never realize the true costs until much much later. Unfortunately I believe we’re heading for the 6th extinction faster than we care to admit.

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