Public Health & Recreation

High Levels of PFAS in Warwick’s Spring Pond Likely Symptom of Other R.I. Contamination


WARWICK, R.I. — At Spring Green Pond, the quacking and flapping of ducks mixed with the roaring of jet engines from nearby T. F. Green International Airport and the rush of cars on Warwick Avenue.

Recent testing showed this pocket of nature enveloped by a busy commercial and industrial district has high concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These “forever chemicals,” which are found in everything from firefighting foams to food packaging, are linked to several cancers, fertility issues, and developmental delays in children.

Although it’s hard to pinpoint where the PFAS in the pond came from, the high concentration of toxins could suggest yet unknown contamination throughout the state.

The pond was tested by Mike Jarbeau, Save The Bay’s baykeeper, as part of a report by the Waterkeeper Alliance

All of the Rhode Island bodies of water tested by Save The Bay for the study came back positive for PFAS, including nearby Buckeye Brook, but Spring Green Pond tested highest for each individual chemical and in total concentration, with 193.9 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS.

The national study found that 84% of the nation’s waterways contained at least one per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substance, including some Rhode Island sites. (Waterkeeper Alliance)

Jarbeau said he chose to test Buckeye Brook and Spring Green Pond because of their proximity to an airport, but said he was surprised that Buckeye Brook, downstream from T. F. Green, had lower PFAS levels than the pond.

He had hypothesized that if the contamination was due to the airport, the brook would have been the more polluted source.

Airports are common sources of PFAS contamination because they use and store aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF), which contain forever chemicals, to fight plane fires.

T. F. Green has never had an accident which required the use of AFFF, and it stopped using those foams in non-emergency training situations in 2019, according to John Goodman, assistant vice president of media and public relations for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), which operates T. F. Green and the other airports in Rhode Island.

Jarbeau said he couldn’t draw any definitive conclusions as to how the chemicals had leached into the water, but noted he was interested to see that some of the compounds weren’t legally manufactured in the United States anymore.

For example, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which was used in Teflon pans, and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), which was an ingredient in Scotchgard, were found in the pond but are no longer manufactured in the United States. Those chemicals never degrade — thus the moniker forever — so exposures have continued into the present, according to the Waterkeeper Alliance report.

The other chemicals found in the pond, including perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA) and perfluoropentanoic acid (PFPeA), which are found in stain- and grease-proof food packaging and household items, and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS), an ingredient in the new Scotchgard formula, however, are all still permitted for use.

PFAS “show up in funny places we don’t expect,” said Rainer Lohmann, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and director of the research program STEEP: Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFAS.

Lohmann said he also couldn’t identify a specific source for the Spring Green Pond contamination, but looking at the study, he said it seems like it was a “typical urban signature … kind of a lot of things.”

“It doesn’t look like it’s one dominant point source,” Lohmann said, such as a company accidentally leaking or dumping chemicals into the water.

Lohman said the chemicals could have been in the pond for decades, or they could have been swept into the pond by a storm before testing.

“It’s difficult to know without further study, as scientists would famously say,” he said.

Lohmann noted the major health risk from the pond would be for fish in the water and any people who ate them.

No one uses Spring Green Pond for drinking water; water for local households is provided by the Providence Water Supply Board. But, if someone caught a fish in the pond, it likely wouldn’t be safe to consume, Lohmann said.

There is not currently a surface or groundwater PFAS maximum in Rhode Island, though the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) will have to set a standard for both by the end of 2023. The current safety threshold for PFAS by the Environmental Protection Agency is 70 ppt. Any decisions to make a fish consumption or swimming advisory would be up to the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH), according to Joseph Haberek, DEM’s administrator of surface water protection.

But to compare, the Oakland Village Water District in Burrillville had to switch to a different water source after its well tested between 88 and 114 ppt of PFAS. The new Rhode Island drinking water standard, which takes effect in July of next year, will be lower than the EPA’s, at 20 ppt.

The Buckeye Brook watershed. (EPA)

“I mean there’s no question about it. That is not safe drinking water, and because PFAS bioaccumulates very strongly in fish, that will suggest fish probably [are] not that great,” Lohman said.

DEM is in the process of “completing a statewide investigation of sources of PFAS contamination” and setting both the groundwater and surface water standards, Haberek wrote in an email to ecoRI News.

The department is also starting to implement PFAS testing requirements for RI Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (RIPDES) applications, but there is a public notice period that must be completed before sampling begins, Haberek noted.

Spring Green Pond had likely never been tested for PFAS before Save The Bay’s participation in the Waterkeeper Alliance report. DEM has never tested the pond or any other surface water for PFAS, according to Haberek.

Lohmann said the next step after securing drinking water in the state would be to start thinking about how other exposures, like surface water, can be mitigated.

Rather than being specifically concerned about the Warwick pond, Lohmann said the test results should demonstrate that there are probably high levels of PFAS in lots of surface waters that we just don’t know about yet.

Jarbeau said testing the waters and participating in the report was a no-brainer because, as with microplastics a few years ago, he hopes that doing some work on substances that are just emerging as an issue could get the ball rolling.

“I just hope that this report and other research can help bring awareness and come up with some solutions to deal with it before it becomes too much of a health issue or whatever else might come from it,” Jarbeau said.

Colleen Cronin is a Report for America corps member who writes about environmental issues in rural Rhode Island for ecoRI News.

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  1. There were two dry cleaners right there for many years. The one on the pond side discharged right into the pond. Long before regulations were put in place is my guess.

  2. I think it’s important to post signs at these ponds about the dangers of eating fish caught in their contaminated waters.

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