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“Forever Chemical” PFAS Detected in Swift River School Water

An elementary school on the Wendell-New Salem border found dangerous levels of a manufactured chemical in its tap water.

By Sarah Robertson

[The following originally appeared in the Montague Reporter.]

NEW SALEM / WENDELL – Recent tests of tap water at Swift River School found high levels of a toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS, prompting the school to notify parents last month and begin investigating water treatment options. The source of the contamination is unknown, but a state program to test private wells in Wendell may help determine the extent of the problem.

Since November, water tests have shown PFAS levels at the school are more than double the safe drinking water standard of 20 parts per trillion (ppt) established by a Massachusetts law last year. The average contaminant level detected at Swift River School so far is 49.9 ppt. The school continues to monitor the water on a monthly basis in accordance with state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) guidelines.

“Even with our current levels of PFAS, our water is potable and considered safe for most people,” Swift River School principal Kelley Sullivan and water operator Larry Ramsdell told the Reporter in a written statement. “We are curious to see what levels we will test at in the future, and our hope is that numbers will go down.”

While school officials call the water “potable,” MassDEP director of public affairs Edmund Coletta hesitated to make the same claim. He said “sensitive subgroups” like those who are pregnant or nursing, infants, and those with compromised immune systems are advised not to consume or cook with water above 20 ppt. Anyone in this at-risk group using the school building has been advised to supply their own drinking water bottles until further notice. 

“Following the receipt of the results, MassDEP is conducting a preliminary investigation, but has not conducted any additional sampling at this time,” Coletta told the Reporter.

A map on the MassDEP website shows that Swift River School is one of 39 public water systems in Massachusetts to discover PFAS levels greater than 20 ppt, the only one in Franklin County to detect excessive levels so far. MassDEP, in partnership with UMass, is in the midst of a widespread, free water testing program to find places where the PFAS have affected groundwater supplies. 

“It’s a newly emerging contaminant,” Wendell board of health agent Elizabeth Swedsberg said during a meeting of the board of health on Monday. “Not that this hasn’t been around for a while. They’re still determining what the effects are.”

The term PFAS generally refers to a class of thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals characterized on the molecular level by fluorinated carbon chains. The most famous is polytetrafluoroethylene, sold under the brand name Teflon. Valued for their hydrophobic qualities, PFAS were manufactured in the United States since the 1940s by companies including 3M and DuPont and used in a wide range of industrial and consumer applications. Many are now banned in the US, but they persist in the environment.

Massachusetts adopted drinking water standards for the sum of six PFAS chemical variants on October 2, 2020, and environmental groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation and Community Action Works continue to lobby for regulation as low as 1 ppt.

“PFAS include presumed carcinogens and have been linked to a variety of severe health problems, including learning disorders in infants and children, fertility and pregnancy issues, and impaired liver, thyroid, pancreatic, and immune function,” Erica Kyzmir-McKeon, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation of Massachusetts, told the Reporter.

“By adopting the 20 ppt drinking water standard, MassDEP determined that it is not safe to drink water with PFAS levels above this limit.”

Underground Toxins

In a meeting with MassDEP officials last Friday, which was not posted publicly, fire chief Joe Cuneo, a quorum of the board of health, and UMass consultants talked about possible sources of PFAS contamination in town. The locals mentioned a landfill off Route 2 where construction crews dumped refuse from Boston’s Big Dig project in the 1980s.

“People in Wendell are very environmentally aware. They’re very concerned about contaminants of any kind,”  board of health chair Barbara Craddock said at Monday’s meeting. “I believe in science, but sometimes we start using these things before it’s researched enough,” she added, drawing parallels to what she saw as the overzealous use of nuclear energy in the past.

Potential sources of PFAS contamination include landfills, incinerators, hazardous waste sites, septic systems, or anywhere that processed sewage sludge, or biosolids, have been applied to land. Firefighting foam has been another potent source of PFAS, contaminating a water source near the Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield with some of the highest PFAS levels in the state. Craddock says the foam is no longer used in Wendell.

A map shared during Friday’s meeting with MassDEP, which the Montague Reporter was not provided a link to attend despite requests to the board of health and MassDEP, showed three clusters of private wells in Wendell that are targeted for testing as part of a statewide regulatory rollout. The largest cluster is on Wendell Depot Road between Kemsley Academy and the library, and two more appeared in the northwest corner of town along Mormon Hollow Road and Farley Road.

Water samples from Swift River School were taken indoors from a sink. The first sample taken on November 17 detected 53.8 ppt of PFAS. A second test on January 6 showed 46.1 ppt, although that test was deemed inconclusive due to quality control concerns, Coletta said. Water was also sampled in February and again last Wednesday, with results still pending.

“The chemical could have traveled from anywhere through the groundwater system,” Ramsdell said in an email.

A well serving the Wendell Town Offices is the only other public water system that has been tested for PFAS in Wendell or New Salem, and it was below the 20 ppt threshold, according to Coletta. 

When asked where else in Wendell there is suspected PFAS contamination, MassDEP’s Coletta said, “This is speculative and unanswerable.”

According to Craddock, the state will begin sending postcards advertising free PFAS testing to eligible private well owners this week. About 150 Wendell well owners will receive postcard invitations to apply online, but only 20 to 40 will be selected for testing. Some sites will be chosen based on proximity to potential sources of contamination, while others will be chosen randomly.

“There are a lot of people in Wendell who would like to have their wells tested. I just want them to realize there may be some cost correction on their end,” Craddock warned.

PFAS is known to persist in the environment and does not break down, leading critics to call it the “forever chemical.” Boiling water will not eliminate the risk of PFAS, and will only concentrate the chemical as water evaporates. Public water systems will also have to foot the bill to fix PFAS contamination problems by purchasing technology such as granular activated carbon filters.

“Public water systems are obligated to meet the drinking water standards and would be financially responsible, but the Commonwealth does make certain grants and low-interest loans available for portions of this work to address PFAS contamination,” Coletta said.

Back To School

The Swift River School, which serves students from preschool through sixth grade, relies on one well for its water source. Last November was the first time the school had ever tested for PFAS.

The school has not issued a formal “public notice” about the contamination because it has not yet been charged with a drinking water violation. A violation is triggered once the “average of all monthly samples collected over a quarter” is greater than 20 ppt, according to state guidelines.

“Since this is the first time that we’ve tested, we do not know how long this has been a problem,” Ramsdell said. “If the levels continue to remain high, we will install a carbon filtration system.”

In early February, school officials sent an email notifying the households of about 92 students and 43 staff members about the water quality concerns. Families of students formerly enrolled at the school did not receive notices.

“For older children and adults… the 20 [ppt] value is applicable to a lifetime of consuming the water…. shorter duration exposures present less risk,” read the notice sent to parents via email. “In most situations, the water can be safely used for washing foods, brushing teeth, bathing, and showering.”

While most Swift River students have been learning from home during the pandemic, officials said some students and staff have been in the building since September, and the school plans to continue its scheduled reopening unabated.

“We anticipate more students will come when we are able to offer full-day in-person learning,” Sullivan said in a statement.

There is no federal standard for a maximum level for PFAS in drinking water, besides an Environmental Protection Agency-issued “health advisory” of 70 ppt. In Massachusetts any PFAS test results over 90 ppt are deemed an “Imminent Hazard” and will be referred to MassDEP’s Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup for immediate action.

“You don’t want anything toxic in your drinking water. You especially don’t want toxic PFAS chemicals in the water at your kid’s school,” Shaina Kasper, water program director for Community Action Works, told the Reporter. “PFAS are a serious threat to our health, and contamination like this requires serious and immediate action.”

Sarah Robertson is a staff writer at The Shoestring and a regular contributor to the Montague Reporter.

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