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Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

Learn about a group of contaminants in the environment called 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.

Additional Resources

PFAS detected in drinking water supplies in Massachusetts

Drinking 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 9/25/20.  A downloadable version of the map is available here.

Map of Public Water Supply sources where PFAS was detected

Public Water Suppliers (PWS) who detected PFAS over 20 ppt in finished water and their response actions as of 09/25/2020

Table of PWS with PFAS detections and their responses

* Public Water Suppliers (PWS) may be taking one or more actions to address PFAS contamination. For more detailed and up-to-date information about the locations on the map where PFAS was detected, please contact the specific Public Water Supplier (PWS): MA Public Water Supplier Contacts. 

** Certain types of PWS, called Transient Non-Community Water Systems, are not subject to the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFAS.

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@mass.gov.

 

Free sampling is available to all Public Water Suppliers in Massachusetts, for more information see https://www.mass.gov/media/2168401/

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 of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) applied to the total summed level of all five compounds.

On January 27, 2020, MassDEP updated the ORSG for drinking water to add an additional compound, PFDA, for a total of 6 PFAS and lowered the guideline to 20 ppt for the total sum of the concentrations of the 6 PFAS.

MassDEP recommends the following:

  1. Consumers in sensitive subgroups (pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants) not consume water when the level of the six PFAS substances, individually or in combination, is above 20 ppt.
  2. Public water suppliers take steps expeditiously to lower levels of the six PFAS, individually or in combination, to below 20 ppt for all consumers.

Additional information on the MassDEP ORSG:

Additional information for consumers:

Additional information for Public Water Suppliers:

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).  

On December 27, 2019, proposed revisions to the drinking water regulations were published in the Massachusetts Register, marking the start of the formal public comment period.  The proposed regulation would establish a drinking water standard (MCL) of 20 ng/L for the sum of six specific PFAS.

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

Technical Support Document: 

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS): An Updated Subgroup Approach to Groundwater and Drinking Water Values

Laboratories, testing and sample collection

Laboratories

Drinking water samples must be analyzed for PFAS by labs using EPA Methods: 537 or 537.1.  On June 17, 2020 the MassDEP Division of Environmental Laboratory Sciences established a certification process for laboratories using these Methods.

See:
Laboratory certification office policy on PFAS
and
Laboratory Certification Forms

Until a lab is certified for PFAS analysis for samples collected by Public Water Suppliers, analysis must be performed by laboratories that are approved by the MassDEP Drinking Water Program (DWP).  See MassDEP Approved Laboratories for Analysis of Drinking Water for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).

All Drinking Water Program approvals of laboratories to test for PFAS still in effect on October 31, 2020 will be withdrawn by the MassDEP DWP on November 1, 2020.  After November 1, 2020 the DWP will rely on certification for PFAS analysis from the Massachusetts Laboratory Certification Program.

Testing/Sampling

If you are a private well owner, for more information about whether you should test, how to test and treatment options, please see PFAS in Private Well Drinking Water Supplies FAQ.

If you are a Public Water Supplier, MassDEP is offering FREE testing for PFAS, see:

Bottled water and home water filters

Water bottles

Bottled water companies that have tested their water for PFAS and voluntarily shared the results for posting on the Commonwealth's website:

See also:

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health Bottled Water Consumption Advisory and New Hampshire Bottled Water Testing 2019 (PDF)

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.

Home Water Filters

There are also home water treatment filters capable of removing PFAS from drinking water for the countertop or under the sink. Filters certified by NSF have been demonstrated to be effective in removing two of these compounds, PFOS and PFOA, to below the USEPA Health Advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).  Many of these filters will likely be able to reduce PFAS levels to well below 70 ppt, however MassDEP has no independently verifiable monitoring results demonstrating this performance.  If you chose to install a filter, you should check to see if the manufacturer has monitoring results demonstrating that the device can reduce PFAS to below your level of concern. For example, MassDEP recently proposed a drinking water limit, or Maximum Contaminant Level, of 20 ppt for the sum of the levels of six PFAS compounds.

To see a list of NSF Certified filters: NSF Certification

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).

Final PFAS-related MCP Revisions

Revisions to the Massachusetts Contingency Plan establishing notification requirements and cleanup standards for PFAS in soil and groundwater are now final, effective December 27, 2019.  Documents related to these regulations are now available.

Additional Resources

Take-back program for legacy firefighting foam

Foam for Fire Fighting

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.

Based on review of data for residuals collected by other states, MassDEP has concerns about levels of PFAS in these products. Therefore a determination has been made to include a requirement for PFAS testing in all new or renewed AOSs, as of January 2019. See:

PFAS in Residuals

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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