Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

Learn about a group of contaminants in the environment, Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Find out where they have been found and what Massachusetts is doing to address them.

Table of Contents

What are PFAS and why are they a problem?

unpopped popcorn bag

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of chemicals used since the 1950s to manufacture stain-resistant, water-resistant, and non-stick products. PFAS are widely used in common consumer products as coatings, on food packaging, outdoor clothing, carpets, leather goods, ski and snowboard waxes, and more.

firefighting foam

Certain types of firefighting foam—historically used by the U.S. military, local fire departments, and airports to fight oil and gasoline fires—may contain PFAS.

PFAS in drinking water is an important emerging issue nationwide. Because PFAS are water soluble, over time PFAS from some firefighting foam, manufacturing sites, landfills, spills, air deposition from factories and other releases can seep into surface soils. From there, PFAS can leach into groundwater or surface water, and can contaminate drinking water. PFAS have also been found in rivers, lakes, fish, and wildlife.

chemical bonds

PFAS stay in the environment for a long time and do not break down easily. As a result, PFAS are widely detected in soil, water, air, and food. Some PFAS can accumulate in the food chain. Exposure can occur when someone uses certain products that contain PFAS, eats PFAS-contaminated food, or drinks PFAS-contaminated water. When ingested, some PFAS can build up in the body and, over time, these PFAS may increase to a level where health effects could occur.

Studies indicate that exposure to sufficiently elevated levels of certain PFAS may cause a variety of health effects including developmental effects in fetuses and infants, effects on the thyroid, liver, kidneys, certain hormones and the immune system. Some studies suggest a cancer risk may also exist in people exposed to higher levels of some PFAS. Scientists and regulators are still working to study and better understand the health risks posed by exposures to PFAS, and MassDEP is following developments in this burgeoning area closely.

PFAS detected in drinking water supplies in Massachusetts

water testing

Between 2013 and 2015 in Massachusetts, 158 public water systems serving more than 10,000 people and 13 smaller systems were required to test for six PFAS chemicals as part of EPA’s third round of the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR3). PFAS was detected at nine Massachusetts drinking water sources above EPA's specified reporting limits.

See the complete set of reported Massachusetts UCMR3 testing results for PFAS and other unregulated contaminants between 2013 - 2015.

Since then some additional testing has taken place. More recent PFAS sampling results from public water systems are available on the Massachusetts EEA Data Portal. Search under the contaminant group "PFAS".

 

The following map displays locations where public drinking water sources have been tested for PFAS as of March, 2019.  A downloadable version of the map is available here.

Map of PFAS testing in Massachusetts Public Water Supplies

For more detailed and up-to-date information about the locations on the map where PFAS was detected, please contact the Public Water Supplier (PWS): MA Public Water Supplier contacts sorted by Town.

 

New drinking water source approvals and PFAS

MassDEP requires Public Water Suppliers (PWS) to test all new sources of drinking water for PFAS, including replacement sources and satellite wells, using EPA method 537 (14 compounds) or 537.1 (18 Compounds) and report all results. For more information about the new source approval process, contact your MassDEP Regional Office. List of MassDEP Regional Offices by community or email the MassDEP Drinking Water Program program.director-dwp@state.ma.us.

Health advisories and downloadable fact sheets

PFAS Levels of Concern

In May 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a lifetime Health Advisory (HA) of 70 parts per trillion (0.07 ug/L) for the combination of two PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, in drinking water.

In June 2018, due to similar health concerns, MassDEP established an Office of Research and Standards Guideline (ORSG) level for drinking water that extended the EPA advisory to include the following three additional PFAS chemicals: PFNA, PFHxS, and PFHpA, because these compounds share very similar chemical structures and the available data indicates they are likely to exhibit similar toxicities. The ORSG level is 70 parts per trillion (ppt), and applies to the total summed level of all five compounds. Based on this ORSG, MassDEP recommends the following:

  1. Consumers in sensitive subgroups (pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants) not consume water when the level of the five PFAS substances, individually or in combination, is above 70 ppt.
  2. Public water suppliers take steps expeditiously to lower levels of the five PFAS, individually or in combination, to below 70 ppt for all consumers.

Additional information on the MassDEP ORSG can be found at:

Additional information for consumers can be found at:

Development of a PFAS Drinking Water Standard (MCL)

In January 2019, MassDEP announced its intention to initiate the process to develop a drinking water standard, known as a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL), for a group of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).

The Department is committed to soliciting stakeholder input ahead of and in addition to the public comment period that accompanies all proposed regulations. 

For more information see:  Development of a PFAS Drinking Water Standard (MCL)

Laboratories and testing for PFAS

Drinking water samples must be analyzed for PFAS by labs using EPA Method 537 or 537.1. In 2019 MassDEP will be working on establishing a process for drinking water laboratory certification using these Methods.

Public Water Suppliers:

Until MassDEP begins certifying labs, analysis must be performed by laboratories that are either:

  • Approved by EPA for UCMR3 monitoring and are capable of achieving a minimum reporting level (MRL) of 5 ppt or lower, have continued to participate in performance evaluation studies and can document such status; or
  • Certified by another state or certification authority and approved by the MassDEP Drinking Water Program.  See list of approved labs here.

Private Well Owners:

Until MassDEP begins certifying labs for PFAS analysis, we recommend you use a lab certified by another state or certification authority. See the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Management System  to find a certified lab. We encourage you to ask the lab to use the lowest reporting level available (5 ppt or lower).

Additional Resources

Bottled water and home water filters

water bottles

The following link is to a list of bottled water companies that tested their water for PFAS and voluntarily shared the results for posting to the Commonwealth’s website. The list includes links to their lab reports.

MassDEP has also established a process to assess the quality of bottled water provided at state-funded response actions in order to answer the question “Is the bottled water provided to residents by MassDEP safe to drink?” A summary of the PFAS analytical results for the bottled water sampled to-date is available.

There are also home water treatment filters to remove PFOS and PFOA from drinking water for the countertop or under the sink. Filters certified by NSF have been demonstrated to be effective in removing these compounds to below the USEPA Health Advisory of 70 ppt.  Many of these filters will likely be able to reduce levels to well below 70 ppt.  If you chose to install a filter you should check to see if the manufacturer has independently verifiable monitoring results demonstrating that the device can reduce PFAS below your level of concern. Check that the filtration device is NSF Certified.

PFAS and Waste Sites

PFAS are considered to be "hazardous material" subject to the notification, assessment and cleanup requirements of the Massachusetts Waste Site Cleanup Program. A detailed Fact Sheet (below) provides guidance regarding when and how to sample and analyze for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances at disposal sites regulated under the Massachusetts Contingency Plan ("MCP", 310 CMR 40.0000).

Notification Requirements

There are currently no PFAS-specific Reportable Quantities (RQs) or Reportable Concentrations (RCs); therefore, the presence of PFAS in soil or groundwater is not, by itself, a notifiable condition under the MCP. However, the regulations include a 2-hour notification condition that is applicable to any oil or hazardous material that poses (or could pose) an Imminent Hazard, regardless of whether it is specifically listed in regulation (310 CMR 40.0311(7)).

MassDEP may issue a Notice of Responsibility (NOR) to initiate a site assessment for a release of PFAS to the environment, absent specific notification triggers.

PFAS as Contaminants of Concern

If a disposal site is currently under investigation, specific knowledge of site history/operations, the results of past analyses and other relevant information is considered to determine which potential contaminants to look for. For example, if past industrial operations at the site indicate the likely presence of other PFAS compounds at toxicologically significant concentrations, then those compounds would also be included in the investigation.

In the absence of published soil and groundwater cleanup standards (MCP Method 1 Standards) for PFAS, these compounds must be addressed using a site specific risk assessment approach.

Additional Resources

Take-back program for legacy firefighting foam

Collected Buckets of AFFF Concentrate to be Destroyed
Collected Buckets of AFFF Concentrate to be Destroyed

MassDEP, in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services (MassDFS), initiated a legacy "Aqueous Film-Forming Foam" (AFFF) collection and destruction program in 2018 that collected 128,000 pounds (15,000 gallons) of legacy foam from fire departments across the Commonwealth and MassDOT.

The pre-2003 versions of the foam use certain PFAS compounds, which have contaminated some groundwater and drinking water sources across the country. The take-back program ensures that these foams are removed from current stockpiles and appropriately neutralized.

Additional Resources

PFAS in Wastewater Residuals

MassDEP regulates the land application of sludge and septage for beneficial purposes under 310 CMR 32.00. This includes:

  • residuals produced from sanitary wastewater sludge,
  • drinking water treatment facility sludge,
  • short paper fiber,
  • and food waste.

All residuals products sold, distributed, and applied in Massachusetts are subject to an Approval of Suitability (AOS), which classifies biosolids for different uses based on the chemical quality and treatment to reduce pathogens. Each approval must be renewed every five years. Under 310 CMR 32.13(5)(c), MassDEP may require sampling and analysis for additional substances before or after issuing the approval. Such a requirement may be either:

  1. at the request of the local board of health where the product is proposed for use,
  2. or at MassDEP's request upon review of information submitted in compliance with 310 CMR 32.13(1) or any other information.

 

For more information about MassDEP’s regulation of residuals, visit https://www.mass.gov/service-details/residuals-biosolids or contact Jennifer Wood, jennifer.wood@mass.gov or 617-654-6536.

Links to additional information

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