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Toxic chemicals found in Harvard water, but at levels below state limits

Updated March 12, at 9:15 a.m.

In a March 6 page one Boston Globe story titled “Toxic Chemicals Threaten Water Supply in Seven Municipalities,” David Abel reported that toxic chemicals known as PFAs, or pre- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, had been found in public water supplies located in Harvard, Ayer, and five other Massachusetts towns.

The story quickly drew the attention of town agencies and residents, But although PFAs have been found at four non-municipal public water supply sites in town, Harvard’s municipal water system, which supplies schools and town center homes and businesses, is not one of them. Harvard’s town wells have never been tested, and the four contaminated sites are located in north Harvard.

In an afternoon statement, the Harvard Board of Health sought to reassure residents that the levels of contaminant at the north Harvard sites are not a danger to public health. “None of the wells tested in Harvard exceeded the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (MassDEP) June 2018 advisory levels for PFAs above 70 parts per trillion in water,” the unsigned statement asserts.

In the BOH statement, Department of Public Works Director Tim Kilhart is quoted as saying municipal water has not been tested because testing is not required by the state, but that the Harvard Water Department will be testing both town wells “at its earliest convenience.” Kilhart is also quoted as saying it is highly unlikely there are PFAs in municipal water due to the distance of town wells from Devens—a possible source of PFA contamination in the area—but water testing should be done to confirm this.

While research on the effects of PFAs on humans is not yet conclusive, tests on animals have shown the chemicals can affect the liver, kidneys, thyroid, and hormone levels, according to a 2016 EPA health advisory.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), there are no state or federal limits for PFAS in drinking water. However, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has set a “health advisory” level of 70 parts per trillion for the total of two PFAS, and MassDEP has set the advisory to that same level, but for the total of five PFAS. The advisory level is considered as the level of a substance that is safe to drink over a person’s lifetime.

In August 2018, six small public water supplies in Harvard were tested for 14 substances classified as PFAS. According to data maintained by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, four of those tested positive for at least one of the PFAS that the EPA and MassDEP include in their advisories. All were below the 70 parts per trillion level.

The four are registered as public water systems and belong to The Appleworks, Lancaster County Road LLC (which owns office buildings on Lancaster County Road), Ayer Road Properties at 198 Ayer Road, and the Harvard Green Condominiums.

The MassDEP-recognized PFSA levels were: 42.3 parts per trillion at the Appleworks well, 20.9 parts per trillion at the Ayer Road Properties well, 8.89 parts per trillion at the Harvard Green Condominiums well, and 3.36 parts per trillion at the Lancaster County Road well. The EPA-recognized levels for these wells were lower or equal to the MassDEP levels. None of the PFAS tested for were detected in the wells at Foxglove and Shaker Place offices.

Nevertheless, in its statement today, the Board of Health says residents with a private well who live in the Ayer Road area “could consider” testing their water for PFAs, but adds:.“There is currently no indication that PFAs are present in any other area under investigation (i.e., Ayer Road near the Ayer town line, north of Route 2.)”

The origin of the PFAs found in the area is a mystery, though the former military base at Devens is a prime suspect. According to the 2018 MassDEP Fact Sheet, PFAs are contained in firefighting foams, which have been used in training exercises and to extinguish oil and gas fires at a variety of locations, including airfields. But PFAs are also used in a number of industrial processes and have been used to make carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and other materials (e.g., cookware) that are resistant to water, grease or stains. Because these chemicals have been used in many consumer products, most people have been exposed to them. PFAs are a known contaminant of Devens and Ayer water. Local advocacy groups are pressuring the Army to make good on a commitment to built a $4.2 million treatment plant to remove the chemicals from public water.

For further reading:

John Osborn contributed to this story

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include more precise data on the wells tested for PFAS in Harvard and the results of those tests.

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