CDC probes risks of PFAS chemicals

  • In this June 18, 2018 file photo, equipment used to test for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, in drinking water is seen at Trident Laboratories in Holland, Mich. Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP

  • U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan told a state task force Tuesday that communities will need federal support to make meaningful progress in tackling PFAS contamination. SCREENSHOT

State House News Service
Published: 8/4/2021 1:04:35 PM

As a Massachusetts task force works toward an end-of-year deadline to recommend ways to address contamination by PFAS chemicals, its members heard Tuesday of steps other states are taking and what a congresswoman described as “unprecedented” engagement from the federal government.

The PFAS Interagency Task Force, created in last year’s state budget and chaired by House Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan and Sen. Julian Cyr, is charged with studying PFAS contaminants, exposure pathways and mitigation strategies and making recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 31.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a group of long-lasting, manmade chemicals used for decades in products like firefighting foam and nonstick coating. Patrick Breysse, who leads the Center for Disease Control’s efforts to investigate links between environmental factors and health, told the task force his agency is working in various communities on studies and exposure assessments to gauge the chemicals’ health impacts.

Breysse, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said PFAS chemicals can adversely affect different parts of the human body, including potential impacts on cholesterol levels and liver enzymes.

“And so the question is, what chemicals affect what organ systems at what levels?” he said. “We need that information to tell communities how to protect themselves, so we’re desperately doing everything we can to understand how these toxic effects translates into everyday risks for people.”

Western Massachusetts legislators, including U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, and Richard Neal, D-Springfield, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, have all added their voices to the statewide call for eliminating PFAS use.

Because not all water sources are tested for PFAS, the true extent of PFAS in western Massachusetts is unknown. However, research suggests that 17% of public water supplies in the region have detectable PFAS levels, with 5% at levels above state regulatory standards. The chemicals have been detected in two wells in Shutesbury and in potable water at Swift River School in New Salem.

By comparison, around 37% of private wells across the state have detectable levels of the chemicals, research suggests. Of those wells, 7% contain levels above state regulations.

Speaking at a virtual panel last month, McGovern called the widespread use of PFAS a “crisis,” adding, “we need to take action with a sense of urgency.”

Breysse said his agency is “actively engaged” on PFAS exposure in 40 to 50 sites across the country.

“This issue, as you’re well aware, has really mushroomed over a relatively short period of time,” he said.

State legislatures this year have considered at least 196 bills with language related to PFAS, up from 180 last year and 106 in 2019, said Shelly Oren, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“In the historical absence of federal action on this issue, states have led the way on addressing PFAS contamination, and state legislative activity on the issue has increased over the last few years,” Oren said.

She said drinking water “is a primary area of interest” for state action around PFAS, with several states, including Massachusetts, adopting or moving toward setting a maximum contaminant level for their drinking water in the absence of a national limit.

The U.S. House last month passed a PFAS bill that, among other measures, would require the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a drinking-water standard for PFAS with the goal of limiting exposure, Congresswoman Lori Trahan said.

Trahan, a Westford Democrat, said the bill would also mandate cleanup of sites contaminated with two particularly hazardous types of PFAS chemicals, provide support to families that have been exposed to PFAS and take other steps to prevent future exposures.

She said she’s seen “an unprecedented level of engagement from the Biden administration” on PFAS.

“For a long time, the EPA stayed away from the PFAS issue, and that inaction is what got us to this point where states have had to act in the absence of and without robust assistance from the federal government,” she said. “President Biden came out in strong support of this legislation, and it is my hope that as we work to get this done in Congress that the administration will use whatever levers possible to get resources to communities like those here in Massachusetts working to address and prevent contaminations.”

Trahan said PFAS contaminants can cross town and state lines, and that communities will need investment from the federal government to make meaningful progress in addressing contamination.

“Look, no one tuning in this morning is oblivious to the fact that cleaning up these water sources is not cheap,” she said. “Towns like Ayer have already spent $12 million on PFAS mitigation, and it’s clear that more small towns will have to make similar investments in the months and the years ahead.”

Staff writer Jacquelyn Voghel contributed to this report.
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