2018 survey found PFAS in northwest Harvard wells; town awakens to risks

A March 6 Boston Globe story citing Harvard as one of seven Massachusetts municipalities with PFAS in its drinking water, sent Harvard’s Board of Health scurrying to find out which water supplies were implicated. Officials quickly determined that the positive tests came from four public water supplies and two private wells in the area of Ayer Road between Route 2 and the Ayer town line.

The PFAS concentrations for all six of those water supplies, measured by Army contractors in a 2018 study of the area, were below the current health advisory guidelines recommended by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (see "No limits for PFAS, only guidelines" below). Harvard’s two municipal wells were not included in the study and were not tested.

The four public water systems that tested positive supply the Appleworks at 325 Ayer Road, Harvard Green condominiums on Lancaster County Road, the Vanguard Medical and Renaissance Electronics and Communications buildings, and the four buildings at 188, 196, 198, and 200 Ayer Road (see table above for test results). The two private wells that tested positive were at 354 Ayer Road and 313 Ayer Road.

What are PFAS?

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of many different synthetic chemicals, typically used in nonstick, water-resistant, or stain-resistant products (see product list below). PFAS stay in the environment and in the body for a long time. Exposure can come from using products containing PFAS or PFAS-contaminated food or water.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), health effects from PFAS are still under investigation, but studies on laboratory animals indicate that sufficiently high levels of PFAS may cause developmental effects in fetuses and infants, as well as effects on the thyroid, liver, kidneys, some hormones, and the immune system. Both the EPA and MassDEP have issued guidelines for PFAS in drinking water, but they are only guidelines, not enforced maximum levels.

Devens PFAS sparked testing

One product that contained PFAS prior to 2003 was firefighting foam, which was used for training exercises at military installations. Because of the firefighting foam/PFAS link, the Army began testing for PFAS in drinking water near current and former military bases, including Fort Devens, in 2016. One of Ayer’s wells, near a former firefighting exercise area on Barnum Road, tested over the guideline limit, and in 2018, the town voted $4.2 million to fund construction of a PFAS removal treatment system. One of Devens’ wells, located on Macpherson Road near the base’s old airfield and a second firefighting training area, was also taken off-line because of PFAS levels. Devens is in the permitting stage for a new well farther south near Sheridan Road and hopes to bring it online by the end of the year, according to Devens Land Use Administrator and Enterprise Commission Director Peter Lowitt.

The Army designated the Barnum Road firefighting exercise area, about a half mile northwest of the Appleworks building, a study area in 2018 (see sidebar). Because of its proximity to Harvard, Army contractors began sampling public and private wells here in the summer of 2018, mainly along Ayer Road between the Ayer town line and Route 2. Every public water supply in that area was tested, except one that serves the businesses in the Harvard Plaza at 285 Ayer Road. A total of six public water supplies and six private wells were tested. Foxglove Apartments and the Shaker Place office building tested negative for PFAS, as did private wells at 309 Ayer Road, 42 Old Mill Road, 62 Old Mill Road, and 69 Lancaster County Road. The contractors sent letters to well owners with the results.

Town wells to be tested

Department of Public Works Director Tim Kilhart said that MassDEP does not require testing of the town’s water supply for PFAS, but because of the concern generated by the Boston Globe article, the town decided to test its two wells. MassDEP, which has jurisdiction over the state’s public water supplies, will do the testing March 13, and results should be available about a week after that.

A statement released by the Harvard Board of Health, which has jurisdiction over private wells, says that anyone with a private well in the area of Ayer Road north of Route 2 to the Ayer town line could consider testing their water for PFAS. The tests are expensive, between $250 and $300. Despite that, Nashoba Analytical Laboratory Director David Knowlton said the company received about 20 calls asking for test kits after the Globe article appeared. MassDEP has not yet begun certifying labs in Massachusetts to test for PFAS, and Knowlton said Nashoba Analytical sends its tests to Connecticut. Testing turnaround time is about three weeks.

Testing for PFAS requires testers to follow a more complex protocol than that required for other water contaminants. Since PFAS are found in so many products, there is always a possibility of cross-contamination. In Michigan, for example, where testers found high levels of PFAS in the drinking water of homes near the Wolverine World Wide Tannery in Rockford, the state’s testing guidelines recommend that no latex gloves be used, no clothing be worn that has been recently dry-cleaned, no handling of lotions or deodorants before the test, and no touching or eating of pre-wrapped food, snacks, or fast foods right before sampling.

Studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have some level of PFAS in their blood. In areas where PFAS are present in the drinking water, use of home water treatment systems certified to remove PFAS can be used, and the CDC noted lower PFAS levels in the blood of residents using the filters.

The CDC is planning to study the health effects of exposure to PFAS in at least eight communities near current or former military bases where PFAS are known to exist in the drinking water. The study will use exposure assessments of individual residents to further understand the relationship between PFAS and human health. The locations were recently chosen, including one in Hampden County, Massachusetts, near Barnes Air National Guard Base. The study will continue through 2020.


PFAS are a fact of modern society; many products may contain them

PFAS are resistant to heat, water, and grease, making them ideal for nonstick, water- and stain-resistant applications. These are some everyday products that may contain PFAS: Packaging with grease-repellent coatings, such as microwave popcorn bags, fast-food containers or wrappers, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers

  • Nonstick cookware
  • Products with stain-resistance treatments, such as carpets or upholstery
  • Cleaning products
  • Dental flosses, especially those that are coated
  • Cosmetics, including nail polish, facial moisturizers, and eye make-up
  • Shampoo
  • Paints, varnishes, sealants
  • Ski wax
  • Water-resistant clothing, shoes, luggage, and camping equipment

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


No limits for PFAS, only guidelines

For the most part, there are no established state or federal regulatory limits for PFAS levels in drinking water, but MassDEP recently initiated the process of setting a maximum contaminant level for PFAS. The agency already regulates PFAS levels in new public water supplies.

In 2016 the EPA set a “health advisory level” of 70 parts per trillion for the sum of two chemicals that are in the PFAS family: PFOA and PFOS. That number is considered a level that would be safe to drink for an entire lifetime.

In 2018, MassDEP issued its own guidelines. Although it also uses a total of 70 parts per trillion, it measures the sum of five chemicals in the PFAS family: PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, and PFHpA. In addition, MassDEP requires that, prior to activation, new public water supplies must test below 70 parts per trillion for the above five chemicals plus another substance in the PFAS family, PFBS.

Source: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection


Additional reading

“Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS),” Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, 2019: https://bit.ly/2F87JYs

“Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health,” CDC, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 2019: https://bit.ly/2XTWAlB

“Private Residential Well PFAS Sampling-Guidance,” Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Oct. 2018: https://bit.ly/2GnKcF8


Why the Army tested Harvard wells for PFAS

In 1980, Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), informally known as the “superfund.” The purpose of the act was to make the parties who contaminated sites responsible for their cleanup, overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The former Fort Devens Army base is a superfund site, and through a Federal Facility Agreement (FFA) between the Army and the EPA, the Army is responsible for investigation and remediation of contaminated sites on the former base. In 2018, the Army added PFAS sites to the Fort Devens FFA. These sites are considered study areas, or areas where “releases of contaminants are suspected or known to have occurred.”

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