New limits on PFAS—“forever chemicals”—and monitoring local wells
As The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes a new standard regulating PFAS chemicals in public drinking water supplies, many are wondering: What does this mean for local well water?
To delve into this topic, we talk with Liz Schoepke, co-founder of SafeWell in Bolton, to find out what it means and the best approaches to ensuring well water safety.
First, here’s some background with links to more information:
What are PFAS and how big a problem is this?
Communities around the United States and the world are grappling with what to do about PFAS. Short for ‘per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances,’ PFAS are a family of human-made chemicals found in thousands of products ranging from firefighting foam, stain-resistant products, and waterproof makeup to fast food containers, microwave popcorn bags, and Teflon pans. Even basic products like toilet paper are contributing to the problem.
PFAS are created to help products resist water, oil, stains, and heat. While convenient, these chemicals are dangerous to human health and do not break down easily—remaining in the human body for years.
Exposure to higher levels of PFAS has been linked to an increased risk for health problems such as cancer, liver damage, high blood pressure, lowered immunity, decreased fertility in women, and risks to unborn babies and children. That’s why organizations like the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition have worked to educate people about PFAS.
PFAS in waterways
The U.S. has had a long history of PFAS use. Though manufactured for more than 50 years, PFAS were not widely documented in environmental samples until the early 2000s.
In recent years, it’s been shown that PFAS have made it into numerous water systems, including the ocean and many drinking water sources. The Environmental Working Group has an interactive map that shows areas where PFAS have been found in the U.S. If a community shows as not affected, there’s a good chance there hasn’t been testing.
Like other areas of the country, Massachusetts has had to manage PFAS levels in drinking water. But it can’t be removed from area waterways. According to recent reports, new fish consumption advisories were issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public health after elevated PFAS levels were recorded in water at 13 state parks. This adds to other toxins such as mercury and PCBs, which have already led to limits on fish consumption.
PFAS and drinking water
Massachusetts is among the states leading the nation in setting guidelines for PFAS in drinking water. Since October 2020, the state has had guidelines that call for lower levels—20 parts per trillion (ppt) rather than 70 ppt. However, in June 2022, the EPA set advisories calling for levels close to zero. On March 14, 2023, the EPA settled on a proposal to set guidelines at 4 ppt for 2 types of PFAS (PFOA and PFOS). It would also regulate mixtures of 4 other types of PFAS ( PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals). If finalized, the proposed regulation will require public water systems to monitor these PFAS, and, if levels exceed the proposed guidelines, notify the public and reduce levels.
The proposed new standards are part of a broad effort by the EPA to address PFAS contamination. Critics say new standards should set limits closer to zero and monitor a broader range of PFAS (thousands exist). Experts admit reducing certain PFAS to close to zero would be a major challenge. Even reductions to 4 ppt are going to be difficult for many communities.
To help prepare communities: the EPA announced plans in February 2023 to help states clean up PFAS in drinking water and hold polluters responsible. The federal nationwide effort includes funding to Massachusetts. Funds will, in part, go to communities in need of assistance to add filtration systems to municipal water treatment facilities to remove PFAS. This can be extremely expensive. For instance, the town of Littleton recently spent $16 million dollars to enhance filtration.
What about well water?
While municipal water sources are upgrading filtration systems, homeowners with private wells across the country and state have been largely left to figure it out on their own. The EPA did update its well water page regarding PFAS contamination.
The state of Massachusetts offers guidance and had a free PFAS Sampling Program for private wells in some communities that rely heavily on wells, including Bolton. However, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) free sampling program has ended. The PFAS private well sampling effort compiled data. The results are expected to be included in a final report.
Overall, there are a lot of unknowns for homeowners who are now faced with the question: “Do I need to test, and what do I do if PFAS levels are high?”
For some answers, we contacted SafeWell of Bolton. The company’s co-founder, Bolton resident Liz Schoepke, is very familiar with monitoring and managing PFAS contamination. “SafeWell has tested thousands of wells across Massachusetts,” she notes. “Generally, more than 50% have detectable levels of PFAS, and some discover alarming levels (hundreds of ppt) and there may not be an obvious source in the vicinity.”
The following Q&A with Schoepke provides additional answers for homeowners:
Q: How would you describe the extent of the PFAS problem locally and nationally?
A: As with a “new” discovery of chemical contamination, the early focus was on figuring out where and what were the sources of hotspots. This included industrial operations known to manufacture or use PFAS and fire stations and airports where PFAS-containing fire-fighting foam was used, and landfills where PFAS-contaminated waste had been disposed. However, over time, as PFAS were detected in groundwater that didn’t appear to be directly influenced by obvious sources, we learned that “natural” fertilizer made with wastewater sewage plant sludge and pulp and paper waste could contain high levels of PFAS. All that to say, PFAS may be a “forever chemical,” but I call it the “everywhere chemical.”
Q: What were the findings of the MassDEP well sampling program?
A: I have crunched the final data and can summarize: 59 of the 84 towns had detectable levels of PFAS in private wells, of which 21 towns had levels >20 ppt, and 5 towns had levels >90 ppt.
Bolton had 10 detections (>2 ppt) out of 25 samples (highest result 13.2 ppt); Lancaster no tests (apparently not more than 60% private wells); Stow had 20 out of 42 detections, 9 over 20 ppt, but there is an ongoing testing and remediation project, focused on town center, where there were detections as high as 500 ppt. The Town of Stow is paying to install treatment systems in homes* where PFAS is detected greater than 20 pp. (* Only homes that are part of the project; higher detections outside of the project area are on their own to install treatment.)
Q: How will new PFAS guidelines affect homeowners with wells?
A: Not at all, in an enforceable way, unless a particular Board of Health includes PFAS in their list of things to test in well water. However, EPA and MassDEP limits are the guidelines well owners are encouraged to meet in their own well water quality. So, in a sense, homeowners who learn that PFAS are in their groundwater can refer to these limits as goals to meet when choosing a treatment option.
Q: If you have a well in or around Bolton should you test it?
A: Absolutely! Consider whether there are any potential sources near your location: fire department, landfill (active, inactive, or even old family “dump”), commercial/agricultural or residential fertilizer application (including golf courses).
Q: How do you get it tested and how does it work?
A: Because MassDEP regulates only 6 PFAS chemicals (combined limit 20 ppt), we recommend that homeowners test only for “MA PFAS-6.” Homeowners have at least two options for this:
- Get a PFAS sample collection kit from a certified lab (we like Alpha Analytical in Marlboro, which does not take “walk ins”, but Nashoba Analytical in Ayer will either provide kits or take samples which they have analyzed at Alpha Analytical), follow detailed sampling instructions (e.g., no clothing or personal care products that could contain PFAS, etc.), take the sample to the lab, and the lab provides a detailed report.
- Call a company like SafeWell, which has:
- Experienced technicians who have been specifically trained in PFAS sampling
- Simple-to-understand health-based interpretation of the results
- Counseling to explain options and provides treatment/filtration to address PFAS
Q: If PFAS contamination is found, what happens next?
A: First, consider what level of risk you are willing to live with. We strongly recommend installing treatment if PFAS exceeds the MassDEP MCL of 20 ppt; any PFAS below that level: it’s a personal choice.
Know that pregnant women, babies, young children, and anyone with a compromised immune system are at the greatest risk from the health effects from PFAS.
Effective treatment options can be found online, at DIY stores, or with professional treatment system companies. It’s not unusual for homeowners (or their plumbers) to install their own systems to treat PFAS, only to discover they are not effective; they could be the wrong size, wrong materials, not certified, incorrectly plumbed, the list goes on. If you choose to treat your water, do your research.
Different options for treatment/filtration include whole-house (point-of-entry treats all the water used throughout the home, typically carbon filtration and requires professional installation) and point-of-use, which can include under-sink units which filter all water at one particular tap, or a personal water filter (like CycloPure’s Purefast cartridge which fits a Brita filter).
Q: If a homeowner decides on a personal water filter, what should they look for in a filter?
A: An NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) label is a good start. However, NSF standards for PFAS removal are based on EPA’s old level of 70 ppt – that won’t do anyone much good! Actually, it’s a good idea to start with a certified product (NSF, WQA, UL, IAPMO), then look at the product’s specifications: most will specify a percent removal for PFAS. I wouldn’t accept a product that has a less than 95% removal rate.
Whatever filter (or filtration system) you choose MUST BE maintained (such as replacing the filter cartridges or changing the tanks) on a regular basis – at least as frequently as the manufacturer recommends. You cannot know – unless you test – when the filter has “run out” and PFAS are getting through.
Also very important: if you have an existing reverse-osmosis filtration system (RO), if maintained properly, it will remove PFAS; however, if you are on a septic system, MassDEP advises against using RO for removing PFAS since the concentrated PFAS waste stream will basically be discharged back to the environment.
Q: Can boiling water actually make the PFAS worse?
A: Yes, as with many other water contaminants, boiling water can further concentrate PFAS.
Q: Will levels go down over time? How often do you need to retest?
A: PFAS have been around for such a long time that we can’t predict that groundwater levels will go down or up over time. In many cases, the contamination has been moving through our groundwater for so many years that the PFAS level at your location could go down, but, because groundwater is always moving, a contaminated plume could also increase your PFAS level.
If PFAS have been detected in your well, and you chose not to treat/filter, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to re-test every few 1-3 years.
Q: What is the expense to test for PFAS?
A: That’s the bad news: PFAS analysis is expensive. A mail-in test to MyTapScore.com is $299, Nashoba Analytical charges $400. Full service sampling, analysis and reporting with SafeWell is $438 (only PFAS testing) or $269 (if adding PFAS to other water quality testing).
Q: There are funds being set aside for MA under the EPA plan; would these funds help local well owners?
A: My understanding is that these funds are designated for public water systems to install treatment. Generally, private well owners are mostly on their own. There may be, however, grants and loans available from RCAP Solutions and the USDA for private well treatment. These grant options assume financial need and probably “imminent danger” in the water quality, and are not necessarily for people who want to install treatment and find it expensive. The Private Well Class’s Funding page is a good place for folks to start their research. [There is also an in-depth Well Class video focused on funding and financing options]
[Note: For specific local questions, request information from the Town of Bolton or your town of residence. The EPA addresses PFAS cleanup funding (#18), but funding specifics are vague. MA state funding programs are generally geared toward community water supplies. If the source of PFAS contamination is evident, there may be options for reimbursement.]
Q: Some residents are concerned testing could affect their home values. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I get that, and it’s probably true today. However, remember that it is unlikely that a homeowner or particular property will be found liable for the PFAS contamination in their well. It’s better to know if PFAS are in your water and be able to treat them to protect your family’s health. I may be exaggerating here, but if every well is determined to have some level of PFAS, the best protection is to install and maintain a treatment system; this will become a positive selling point in the future.
Q: How do you think newer limits will impact this area?
A: Legally, these limits have no direct bearing on private well owners, except as guidance for whether or not to treat.
One of my biggest concerns is that, because private well owners have so few resources to consult, they fear “getting in trouble” with local authorities, losing property value, or simply given a bad reputation for having a contaminated well. There is no mechanism or incentive for residents to report, for example to their Board of Health, and as a result, there is no way to share information about local PFAS levels with their neighbors. My goal is to ensure the best information and education for homeowners with private wells, and they’re not getting the information they need about local PFAS contamination.
For more information on local well monitoring and treatment from Schoepke, contact SafeWell.
Health concerns create change
Some towns such as Harvard require homeowners to test for PFAS before selling a house and Stow is considering doing the same, according to a WBUR report. Bolton has recommended testing be done before selling. As Schoepke pointed out, mitigating any potential problems before selling by installing a filtration system, if needed, could make the process faster.
When it comes to prevention, Massachusetts is among the states leading the nation in the effort to stop PFAS from entering the environment. State lawmakers, led by Rep. Kate Hogan of Stow and Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro, have introduced legislation (HD 3324 / SD 2053) to phase out the use of PFAS in almost all products sold in the state by 2030 and to implement many of the recommendations made last year by a task force that the lawmakers chaired. Other states like California are also leading in the effort to ban PFAS products. The goal is to reduce the flow of PFAS into the environment to cut down on future exposure. Unfortunately, these new measures don’t affect PFAS already in the environment.
What can you do to reduce PFAS?
Filtration of drinking water is one way to limit the consumption of PFAS. It also helps to avoid products that contain PFAS, including those that may lead to PFAS entering foods or ending up in landfills that may contaminate groundwater. Requesting manufacturers remove PFAS from products is another way consumers can create change.
Note: Products labeled ‘PFOA free’ or ‘PFOS free’ may still contain other types of PFAS.
The following organizations are among those working to help consumers navigate PFAS when making purchases:
Because PFAS – “forever chemicals” – don’t break down easily, stopping the flow of PFAS into the environment is critical. For more information:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP)