The recommendations came as part of a report on how to deal with contamination from PFAS, a group of highly toxic synthetic chemical compounds that have been found in many Massachusetts drinking water supplies.. The task force, created as part of the fiscal year 2021 budget, unanimously approved the recommendations on Wednesday.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have long been used in everything from cookware and food packaging to electronics and clothing, and have been linked to an array of health issues, including hormonal disruptions, immune deficiency and various cancers. Since they do not break down easily in the human body or in the environment, they are often referred to as “eternal chemicals”.
the report, which task force co-chair Rep. Kate Hogan called a “massive undertaking” at a press conference, sets out 30 recommendations for how Massachusetts could identify and regulate sources of PFAS and clean up contamination.
“The scope of PFAS contamination is vast and the time to act is now,” Hogan and Sen. Julian Cyr, co-chair of the task force, wrote in a letter introducing the report.
Proposals include increasing funding to the state’s Clean Water Trust for municipalities, public water systems and homeowners to address contamination; establish limits on PFAS in industrial wastewater; Phase out the sale of consumer products containing intentionally added PFAS by 2030; and develop a loan program to finance the cleaning of private wells and bringing back a state program to help fire departments replace fire extinguishers containing PFAS.
Members of the task force say they are looking at different legislative avenues to implement their recommendations. Some could potentially be added to the legislation this session, Hogan said.
“We will certainly present a full bill in the next session,” she added.
An October analysis of public water systems in Massachusetts found that 70% of communities have detectable levels of the six most dangerous types of PFAS in ground and surface water. A number of Massachusetts cities spend a lot of money and staff time dealing with PFAS contamination, with some spending hundreds of thousands or even millions on high-tech filters.
Since 2018, the state has allocated nearly $30 million to address PFAS pollution and has made an additional $100 million available in loans, according to Cyr.
The report doesn’t say exactly how much its proposals would cost, but the task force says implementation wouldn’t come cheap.
“The overall price here is substantial, it’s very substantial,” Cyr said at Wednesday’s press event.
To pay for its recommendations, the task force – whose members include 19 lawmakers, state agency representatives, academics and other stakeholders – said Massachusetts could allocate more public funds for the investigation and correction of PFAS. He also suggested using federal money from the US bailout and the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Massachusetts already has PFAS-related regulations on the books. The state Department of Environmental Protection requires testing for 18 PFAS chemicals in all public drinking water systems, and in 2020 it instituted limits for six different types of PFAS in water drinkable. The Department of Public Health also requires that all bottled water sold in Massachusetts meet state and federal drinking water standards, including regulations on a type of PFAS.
But in its new report, the task force urges the state to create its first-ever regulations on PFAS in consumer products. And since there are thousands of varieties of PFAS, the agency recommends regulating them as an entire class.
“An approach that requires evaluating PFAS on a chemical-by-chemical basis may set back efforts to protect public health and the environment,” Hogan wrote in an email.
She said this strategy could avoid “the ‘whack-a-mole’ approach, which can continue to expose people to potentially dangerous substances”. For example, A major source of PFAS contamination in Massachusetts is a particular type of fire-fighting foam known as AFFF. The report notes that manufacturers have produced alternatives to this foam, but have sometimes replaced other types of PFAS.
Deirdre Cummings, legislative director of consumer advocacy group MASSPIRG, welcomed the report.
“I think it’s a large and remarkable study that lays out the urgency of the problem and provides a roadmap for how to start solving it,” she said.
But Kyla Bennett, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in New England, found it “disappointing”.
“I thought the goals were weak…and I thought the language was a little slippery,” she said.
She said she hoped the report would include more urgent deadlines, including plans to immediately ban certain products containing PFAS, such as AAAS firefighting foam. She’s also concerned that the focus on “intentionally added” PFAS could allow some manufacturers to circumvent regulations.
Sean Mitchell, deputy chief of the Nantucket Fire Department, also hoped to see more urgency in the recommendations of the firefighter protective equipment task force. The report says the state could require manufacturers to disclose when equipment contains PFAS and ban them “once there are viable alternatives on the market.” But Mitchell said the ban should happen now.
“Firefighters will continue to be exposed to PFAS-laden turnout gear until industry is told to stop making them,” he said in a text message.