In April, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first drinking water standard for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), the forever chemicals that have been used in many consumer and industrial products starting in the 1940s and 1950s. 

PFAS compounds are added to everything from flame-resistant pajamas to firefighting foam. From there, they enter soil, water and, eventually, our food supply. They have become unavoidable, and most, if not all, of us have PFAS in our bodies.

Although the health effects continue to be studied, the EPA states that PFAS may be linked to infertility, developmental delays, low birth weight, increased risks of some cancers, decreased immunity, interference with hormone function and obesity.

“Massachusetts was well ahead of the federal government in lowering the amount of PFAS allowable in potable water,” said Needham Director of Public Works Carys Lustig. 

“Needham is below the (Massachusetts DEP) threshold of 20 parts per trillion. The new EPA program, which is a much lower threshold of 4 parts per trillion, will preempt the Massachusetts DEP regulation. We are around 4 parts per trillion in two of the substances we test for, so we are probably going back to more frequent testing to get a better annualized average of where we are.

“The town has five years to comply with the EPA regulation once it’s finalized,” she said, “so we’ll be able to collect some data. Interestingly, many of our neighboring communities have triggered the Massachusetts threshold. In Wellesley and Natick, some of their water treatment facilities have had to take facilities offline, supplement with other water sources and build in filtration. Needham, for whatever reason, has consistently tested significantly lower than neighboring communities, even though we are withdrawing from the same watershed.” She said her department will be able to follow neighboring towns’ approaches to improving the water if needed.

On May 30, U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss held a PFAS summit, gathering experts from the EPA, municipal compliance, and companies working on PFAS-destruction technologies. “The connections that were made in that room are going to persist for years because this is going to be generational work. It’s something we have to take on because clean water is a civil right,” said Auchincloss.

He said that in addition to the new regulations, Congress has set aside approximately $20 billion in different buckets. “I view this as a Venn diagram with three circles: the rules, the money, and the technologies. Now that we have rules and money, we’ve created a market for entrepreneurs and investors.” To destroy PFAS chemicals, he said, “it looks like electrochemical oxidation is a very promising technology.”

“Public health is invaluable, Auchincloss added. “We have to invest in the guarantee and trust of clean water.” He encourages municipalities to pass ordinances that prohibit these chemicals. “Wherever the intervention is most efficient, we should do it. Maybe in the long run even more impactful, we should ban the production and use of these PFAS chemicals.”

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