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Environment

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: 

Boston Clean Water Fund

Ecology Center

Consumer Reports

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)

National Institutes of Health

WBUR: PFAS series

Monarch butterfly caterpillar makes its debut

If you’ve never seen a monarch caterpillar hatch, you’re certainly not alone. The eggs are about the size of the tip of a pencil. Yet a lot is going on inside!

Below is video taken (with a microscope attachment) as a baby caterpillar breaks out of its egg. It then eats the egg as its first meal.

We named this little guy Miles—inspired by the many miles monarchs travel on their trip to Mexico.

Miles’ egg was found on a plant growing next to a concrete parking lot in Sterling, MA. The egg was removed in case the plants were cut down, which they often are in parking lot cases. The shell darkens before hatching. That’s the caterpillar getting ready to break free.

Milkweed planting

After eating its eggshell, monarch caterpillars rely on milkweed plant leaves for all meals. Milkweeds are the only food for these caterpillars. There are a variety of types of milkweeds. If you order seeds, make sure to get milkweed plants that are native to your area.

Milkweed seeds can be planted in the fall and winter or placed in the fridge to mimic natural cold stratification. There are a number of great ‘how to’ videos to learn more about growing milkweed plants. 

Saving milkweed plants

It’s hard to tell how many monarch eggs or baby caterpillars like this are killed each year. They have a variety of predators. Habitat destruction and chemicals are a bigger threat to the species as a whole. The problem: they are often cut down as weeds, cleared for construction, or sprayed with chemicals.

Instead of clearing them or spraying them, consider planting native pollinator plants around them to give adult butterflies a great place to stop. Milkweed plants often have flowers that are pretty and complement other flowers well. 

Will a monarch lay eggs if you have a milkweed plant ready? It’s hard to tell as there are dwindling numbers of monarchs, which are endangered. Those who track monarchs say improving habitat is critical.

To create a habitat, avoid spraying the plants with chemicals or cutting them (you could be cutting off eggs or caterpillars; they are small!) and plant milkweed and other native pollinator plants that are protected from spraying or mowing.  

Monarch lifecycle

The monarch butterfly’s lifecycle is pretty amazing to watch. After hatching, monarch caterpillars go through weeks of rapid growth. They have to literally shed their skin to grow. This includes busting out of their little face masks. This video (still using a microscope camera) shows one of little Miles’ molting sessions.

Many baby caterpillars like Miles won’t make it due to habit loss or spraying. Here are some resources to learn more about how to help:

Mass Audubon

Xerces Society

Pollinator Partnership

Check back here in the coming weeks. We’ll post the video of Miles and friends as they continue their journey toward becoming butterflies. We’ll also look at the serious illness that is spreading among monarchs, why it can kill many, and what NOT to do if you see baby caterpillars. 

Also, if you love wildlife videos, check out the Bolton Trail Cam and Bower Springs beaver stories!

Tom Denney Nature Camp 2023 opens registration

Do you want your children to make amazing memories in Bolton this summer? Have them enjoy fun and friends while taking in nature, exploring, and learning new skills.

Tom Denney Nature Camp: Registration for Summer 2023 is now open! Register before April 1st and receive the Early Bird Discount! Here’s an overview of what to expect by age group:

Kindergarten – 5th grade: Games in the fields and woods. Swimming, Predator, and Prey (all-camp tag game), Amazing Race (physical & mental team challenges), arts & crafts, tracking, hiking, shelter building, campfires & more!

9 am – 3 pm (before and after care available)

6th -9th grades: Eco Adventures program with kayaking, laser tag, night camping & s’mores.

9 am – 3pm (9 am – 10 pm on Thursdays for a night camping experience)

9th grade & above: Counselor-in-Training program (M-F 8:45 am – 3:15 pm)

Play games with campers and have fun with friends while gaining experience and volunteer/leadership hours. Involves an orientation and a minimum of two weeks of attendance.

For more info or to register for camp, see the Tom Denney Nature website: http://tdnc.boltonconservationtrust.org

Find TDNC on Facebook as well! https://www.facebook.com/TomDenneyNatureCamp

Electric cars: charging ahead

Wouldn’t it be nice to bypass the gas stations, pull into your driveway, plug in your car, and have it ready each morning with a full charge? Better yet, what if solar panels on your roof were there to provide energy? 

With recent gas prices, an increasing number of Americans and people around the globe are re-thinking electric vehicles (EVs). If you own a hybrid car — even if it doesn’t plug in — you may have heard the trade-in value is exceptionally high. If you’re looking to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle, you may be on a waiting list. That’s because EVs not only save money on gas, but also get good driving reviews. All-electric vehicles typically require less regular maintenance according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

What’s it like to own one? And do solar panels really charge a car or two? We heard from a couple of local EV owners who outlined their experiences. We also heard about the upcoming  2022 Auto Innovation Show being held in Lancaster on July 20th. Here’s a look at what organizers have to say and how EVs are working for local residents. 

A hybrid Prius Prime charges from a regular electric outlet. Hybrid plug-in vehicles like this run on an electric battery and switch to gas automatically when the electric charge is used. The driving experience is comparable to regular gas engine-powered cars.

The Plug-in EV experience

“I bought two used EVs—a Ford CMax and a Chevy Volt—which get 45 miles on a charge and each cost less than $20,000 and are great cars,” says Lancaster resident Natascha Finnerty.  “My work has EV charging, so I am commuting from Lancaster to Cambridge guilt-free!” 

Finnerty is president of the Lancaster-based non-profit organization Nashoba Valley Climate Coalition (NVCC), which has the mission of reducing greenhouse gasses. The organization lobbies to create green energy policies, boosts awareness through events and partnerships, and encourages residents to do what they can to reduce energy use in the home, at work, and while in transit. Changes that reduce energy use can help the environment and the pocketbook. “I am going to start carpooling with a friend soon, since I do not need to use gas so I can help her save money,” adds Finnerty.

Finnerty’s 2017 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid (pictured in front) is similar to other cars, but it gets about 50 miles on a single charge (range varies depending on the model, life of the battery, and driving conditions). Hybrids like this have a gas engine as a backup. Many newer models have a greater range on a single charge.

We have had a plug-in hybrid (Chevy Volt) since 2017,” notes Stow resident Rick Lent, who is a member of Sustainable Stow and is part of the leadership team of a local chapter of Elders Climate Action. Both organizations are committed to improving the environment. Lent emphasizes the practicality of EVs. 

“The battery lets you drive about 50 miles before it switches over to the gas engine,” says Lent. “We find that we do almost all of our driving on that battery and only need the gas engine on long drives.  About 90% of our driving is within that 60-mile range. I can even make it to Cambridge/Alewife. We have solar on our roof and so that can give us the energy we need to charge. However, we often charge at night so we aren’t using that source then.”

Even if you use most of your electricity at night, some power companies, including National Grid, offer solar net metering, which allows you to ‘export’ energy if you have a surplus. For instance, if your panels are generating a lot of energy during the day, but you use most of your energy at night, the amount you use at night is subtracted from what you’ve made during the day.  The National Grid net metering program results in a credit on your bill when you generate more than you use. This can dramatically reduce or eliminate your electricity bill. 

Not all power companies offer net metering. Lent, who lives in Stow, is part of Hudson Light and Power, which offers a solar rebate program instead. “Hudson Light credits our bill, which is low to begin with. I’ve had solar panels on my house in Stow since about 2014.”

Solar use apps allow you to track the amount the solar panels generate and compare that to how much you are using each day. Depending on how many panels you have, there is often an excess which can then be sold back to your electricity company, even if you’re charging an electric vehicle or two. 

If you have enough sun hitting your roof, a solar company can check your average energy bill to determine how many solar panels it will take to supply that amount of energy. There are various state and federal programs to reduce the cost of solar. There are also programs that encourage the purchase and use of battery storage systems that can help the power companies during peak summer use by having individuals or companies send in excess power being generated. These can also replace generators often used during storms when the power is out. 

When it comes to charging an EV at home, it’s simple. The existing outlets in your garage or house are enough to charge EVs. Special chargers are also available for speed charging. Similar to solar panels, there have been tax incentives to buy electric vehicles. In some cases, these include taking $7,500 tax credit and more incentives from the state, shaving the purchase price. 

Do EVs make a difference?

Some claim that EVs use electricity, which has to be generated from fossil fuels. It’s been a concern, but studies have shown that even if you don’t have a solar roof, EVs still come out ahead—leading to an overall reduction in greenhouse gas release. That’s because increasingly electricity is being generated by renewable sources. A recent article in Forbes helped break down the numbers. It focuses on a new study that shows that EVs help reduce greenhouse gasses in all but the most coal-reliant countries. That’s because most countries have diversified their energy production to include renewable energy sources. That applies locally as well. 

“I power my EV with solar, but if your house cannot support solar, people have the option to buy from community solar, and many towns are starting to offer 100% green energy in their town aggregation plans,” adds Finnerty.  

Local EVs in the spotlight

If you’d like to learn about EVs from local residents, the upcoming 2022 Auto Innovation Show, held in collaboration with NVCC, will feature a number of EVs—both hybrids that use both electricity and gas and the more fully electric vehicles. The show is being held Wednesday, July 20 at Kimball Farms Lancaster from 4:30 pm to 7 pm. If you drive in an EV or electric plug-in hybrid, you can enter a drawing for a $25 gift card. 

The shows can be helpful to those thinking about buying an EV because average residents who have used them—and aren’t trying to sell cars—are there to answer practical questions. During a past show, the conversations expanded to include electric lawnmowers, snow blowers, and what to think about when installing solar panels. 

Overall, the 2022 Auto Innovation Show gives you a chance to get under the hood of electric cars and ask questions from average motorists who have used them. “Once you drive an EV, even if it’s a hybrid, I don’t think you can go back to a gas-powered car,” adds Lent. “Our next car will be all-electric.”

Please comment below if you’d like more information. Allow time for us to ask the experts for a reply. Thanks!