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.

Interagency Task Force and AG Lawsuit

In 2020, the Massachusetts legislature appointed the PFAS Interagency Task Force to investigate water and ground contamination of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances across the Commonwealth. The Commissioner of MassDEP was named to serve as one of the Task Force’s 19 members. The Task Force held nine public hearings throughout 2021 and heard testimony from a wide range of stakeholders, including researchers, advocacy groups, community members, municipal officials, state agencies, public water systems, industry groups, and legislators.

In April 2022, the members of the Task Force adopted their final report, per their statutory charge: Learn more about the PFAS Interagency Task Force and see the Final PFAS Interagency Task Force Report

On May 25, 2022, Attorney General Maura Healey sued 13 manufacturers of PFAS "forever chemicals" used in firefighting foam for causing millions of dollars in damages to communities across Massachusetts by knowingly contaminating drinking water sources, groundwater, and other natural resources with highly toxic PFAS chemicals that pose a serious threat to public health and the environment.

See more information about the lawsuit:  AG Healey Sues Manufacturers of Toxic ‘Forever’ Chemicals 

Drinking Water Standards and Health Information

Massachusetts PFAS Standard for Public Drinking Water Supplies

On October 2, 2020, MassDEP published its PFAS public drinking water standard or Massachusetts Maximum Contaminant Level (MMCL) of 20 nanograms per liter (ng/L), or parts per trillion (ppt) applicable to community (COM) and non-transient non-community (NTNC) systems for the sum of the concentrations of six specific PFAS. The six PFAS are: perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS); perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA); perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS); perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA); perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA); and perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA). MassDEP abbreviates this set of six PFAS as “PFAS6.” This drinking water standard is set to be protective against adverse health effects for all people consuming the water. 

EPA Health Advisories for PFAS

On June 15, 2022, EPA released four drinking water health advisories for PFAS contaminants. These health advisories are:

  • Interim updated Health Advisory for PFOA = 0.004 nanograms per liter (ng/L), or parts per trillion (ppt)
  • Interim updated Health Advisory for PFOS = 0.02 ng/L
  • Final Health Advisory for GenX chemicals = 10 ng/L
  • Final Health Advisory for PFBS = 2,000 ng/L

Drinking water health advisories provide information on contaminants that can cause human health effects and are known or anticipated to occur in drinking water. EPA's health advisories are non-enforceable and non-regulatory and provide technical information to states agencies and other public health officials on health effects, analytical methods, and treatment technologies associated with drinking water contamination. EPA’s lifetime health advisories identify levels to protect all people, including sensitive populations and life stages, from adverse health effects resulting from exposure throughout their lives to these PFAS in drinking water.

At this time, MassDEP is working to review the new EPA Interim Health Advisories and will determine next steps based upon that review.

For more information about EPA Health Advisories for PFAS see Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFAS Fact Sheet for Communities and Questions and Answers: Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFBS FAQs.  

Massachusetts is home to some of strictest PFAS standards in the country, strengthened by the Baker-Polito Administration promulgation and implementation of nation-leading rules for drinking water systems and cleanups of contaminated sites, and investment of substantial funding to assist communities as they address PFAS contamination in drinking water systems.

 

    Additional information on the MassDEP public drinking water standard:

    Additional information for consumers:

    Additional information for Public Water Suppliers (PWS):

    PFAS detected in drinking water supplies in Massachusetts

    This story map consists of seven tabs that present interactive maps, dashboards and photographs that describe the efforts by MassDEP and Public Water Suppliers to address the PFAS contamination.  Click on the full screen symbol in the bottom right corner for best viewing.

    PFAS testing data

    Older testing data for PFAS from Public Water Suppliers (PWS) between 2013 - 2015 is available here: Massachusetts UCMR3 testing results.

    More recent PFAS sampling results from PWS are available on the Massachusetts EEA Data Portal. Search under the contaminant group "PFAS".

    New drinking water source approvals and PFAS

    MassDEP requires 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.

    Laboratories, testing and sample collection for drinking water

     

    Drinking Water Testing

    Private Well Owners

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

    Public Water Suppliers

    Field Sampling Guide and video of sample collection procedures for Public Water Suppliers: https://youtu.be/zrwhwSI-R9M

    Drinking Water Laboratories

    Drinking water samples must be analyzed for PFAS by labs using EPA Methods: 537 or 537.1.  

    To find a certified lab see:  MassDEP certified labs

    If you are a laboratory and are interested in becoming certified, see: Laboratory certification office policy on PFAS
    and Laboratory Certification Forms

    Additional Resources

    Bottled water and home water filters

    Water bottles

    The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) Food Protection Program publishes a list of companies licensed to sell or distribute bottled water or carbonated non-alcoholic beverages in Massachusetts.  The list includes bottling company weblinks to enable searches for products sold in Massachusetts.  Licenses are renewed annually, and the MDPH list will be updated quarterly.

    The MDPH list includes only bottlers licensed by MDPH after they provided test results which show that their bottled water or beverages comply with drinking water standards for PFAS and other contaminants established by:

    • The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection,
    • The US Environmental Protection Agency, and
    • The US Food and Drug Administration.

    Information from MDPH regarding bottled water, including contact information, can be found here.

    Home Water Filters

    There are also home water treatment filters capable of removing PFAS from drinking water for the countertop or under the sink.  Treatment systems and devices are not specifically designed to meet Massachusetts’ drinking water standard for PFAS6. There are systems that have been designed to reduce the sum of PFOS and PFOA to below EPA’s former Health Advisory of 70 ng/L. Any treatment device you use should be certified to meet the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) standards to remove PFOS and PFOA compounds so that the sum of their concentrations is below 70 ng/L.  Please be aware that 70 ng/L is significantly greater than the MassDEP’s drinking water standard of 20 ng/L for the PFAS6 compounds. Many of these treatment devices certified to meet NSF standards will likely be able to reduce PFAS6 levels to well below 70 ng/L, but there are no federal or state testing requirements for these treatment devices. If you choose to install a treatment device, you should check to see if the manufacturer has independently verifiable PFAS6 monitoring results demonstrating that the device can reduce PFAS below 20 ng/L. See more detailed information on treatment systems in the Private Well Factsheet.

     

    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

    PFAS in Fire Fighting Foam

    Foam for Fire Fighting

    Takeback Program

    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 has collected (to date) more than 203,000 pounds (over 23,000 gallons) of legacy foam from 120 fire departments and facilities 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.

    In August 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services and Department of Environmental Protection issued a joint Advisory for AFFF containing PFAS.  A link to the Advisory can be found below.

    Fluorine-Free Foam Information

    Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), in partnership with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CTDEEP) and fire service in both states, has conducted a study involving the analysis of six aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) currently on the market and listed as “fluorine-free”. Off-the-shelf foams were acquired by CTDEEP and provided to MassDEP’s contract laboratory Alpha Analytical Laboratories, Inc. for PFAS analyses. Additional analyses, not specific to PFAS, were also conducted by Alpha Analytical Laboratories, Inc., Harvard University and Sterling Analytical, Inc.

    A summary of this work may be downloaded below.

    Additional Resources

    PFAS in 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.

    Since August 2020, MassDEP has required quarterly monitoring of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in residuals​ that have an Approval of Suitability (AOS) and are permitted to be reused through land application. This increased frequency in monitoring, which had been required annually since January 2019, was implemented to address the need for more information on PFAS characteristics in residuals.

    For testing of PFAS in residuals, MassDEP is reviewing and approving lab SOPs & performing QA/QC reviews of lab results. Please refer to this web page for more details on approved laboratories and laboratory methods.

    See the following web page for more information on MassDEP efforts to establish standards for PFAS in Residuals:

    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.

    PFAS in Wastewater Facilities with NPDES-Permitted Discharges

    The below schematic details how MassDEP and EPA are currently including PFAS in Wastewater National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permits.

    MassDEP is also participating in the following regarding PFAS in wastewater:

    Participation in sludge capacity study with NEIWPCC, EPA and other New England states​
    PFAS Pollution Prevention - Collaborative effort of MassDEP, EEA Office of Technical Assistance (OTA), and EPA.

    The Office of Technical Assistance and Technology is a non-regulatory agency within the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. OTA provides free, confidential, onsite technical assistance to Massachusetts manufacturers, businesses, and institutions.

    For testing of PFAS in Wastewater, MassDEP is reviewing and approving lab SOPs & performing QA/QC reviews of lab results. Please refer to this page for more details on approved laboratories and laboratory methods.

    NPDES Permit PFAS Requirements

    PFAS in Massachusetts Rivers

    MassDEP jointly funded a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) water quality study to evaluate the presence of PFAS in Massachusetts’ rivers and streams. USGS conducted three rounds of sampling at each of 64 sites in 27 rivers from August to November 2020 and analyzed the samples for 24 individual PFAS. Sampling sites were located upstream or downstream of discharges from 24 wastewater treatment facilities and at 16 other stream sites, including sites downstream of suspected nonpoint and industrial sources and at sites not associated with suspected PFAS sources.

    PFAS were detected in all 27 of the rivers sampled. Individual PFAS concentrations ranged from not detected in the laboratory to 109 parts-per-trillion (ppt), and the sum of all 24 PFAS at a sampling location ranged between 0.3 and 399 ppt. The highest concentrations were observed downstream of wastewater effluent discharges, but PFAS were also found in rivers upstream of these discharges. The lowest concentrations were observed in rivers located in less populated areas.

    Public drinking water supplies for seven communities withdraw from the rivers included in this study. However, riverine PFAS concentrations do not pose an immediate threat to these water supplies based on the drinking water supply sampling conducted to date. Billerica, Tewksbury, Methuen, Lawrence, Andover, Lowell, and INIMA USA in Brockton have all sampled their supplies, and data from these samples indicate compliance with MassDEP’s drinking water standard of 20 ppt for the sum of six PFAS (“PFAS6”).

    Multiple sources, including wastewater discharges, may contribute to riverine PFAS concentrations. MassDEP will continue to identify future monitoring objectives, potential studies, and other actions to better understand and address the distribution of PFAS in surface waters, relative contributions of different sources, and implications for public health and aquatic life.

    Additional Resources

    Pesticide products/mosquito control

    PFAS contamination was identified in September 2020 through citizen science testing of a pesticide product for mosquito control. The U.S. EPA worked with MassDEP to investigate the source of the contamination. EPA determined that fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) containers that were used to store and transport a mosquito control pesticide product contained PFAS compounds that were leaching into the product.

    For more information see: https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USAEPAOPPT/bulletins/2b8444f

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