The good news in the cities and larger towns on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley that have public water supplies is that when you turn on the tap you can count on filtered, treated water pouring out.
Municipal water departments conduct regular tests and, in most cases, report the results to their customers to show how they have removed or treated potentially harmful bacteria and chemicals.
Today, the problem facing virtually every public water system is concern over so-called “forever chemicals” — compounds known as per- and polyfluroalkyl, commonly called PFAS. These chemicals have been used for years in everything from the non-stick coating on frying pans to carpet cleaners and firefighting foam.
As water testing has become more sophisticated and knowledge about potentially harmful chemicals in drinking water has grown, many communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire are facing financial and scientific hurdles in the quest to keep protect consumers.
In Massachusetts, new rules went into effect late last year requiring drinking water suppliers to remove contamination from six PFAS from local water systems. The regulations require water departments to test for these chemicals that can accumulate in the human body and take decades to degrade. Studies have found potential links between PFAS and some types of cancer, high cholesterol and problems in pregnancies.
Almost a year ago, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law tough drinking water standards relating to PFAS, limiting the permissible amounts on four PFAS chemicals to 12 and 15 parts per trillion – far lower than the 70 parts per trillion the federal EPA has advised for the chemicals.
When Sununu signed the bill into law he said, “We do have a PFAS problem in the state, and we’ve always said we don’t want a problem to become a crisis.”
After the new regulations were enacted last year in Massachusetts, public water sources that supply 10,000 people or more conducted tests, with about 20% of them reporting PFAS concentrations higher than the state allows. For now, none of those communities are in our region. But the persistence of these chemicals in the environment and the fact they never fully break down increases the challenge of keeping them out of public water wells and reservoirs.
Although both states now mandate testing for a handful of PFAS, scientists say there are more than 9,000 known PFAS chemicals. It’s important to note that the risks are not really clear about the dangers of long-term or highly concentrated exposures. But scientists and consumer advocates want to see tougher and more comprehensive state and federal regulations regulating PFAS.
With these chemicals numbering in the thousands, it might be hard for an individual to know what they can do.
A first step would be to learn about the source of your local water, how often it’s tested and what’s in it.
The cities and towns in our region that have public water systems publish detailed reports on the public works or water department pages of their municipal websites. Some, like Newburyport, send the annual report out with the water bill. In those reports you can learn how often the water is tested, what bacteria, chemicals and metals are found in local drinking water and how the local results rate against state and federal guidelines. You also can learn how your water department treats the water to reduce the levels of potentially hazardous chemicals or bacteria.
By becoming an informed consumer, residents are better equipped to understand how their municipal water departments deal with the risk of PFAS and whether they are keeping up with the latest science and regulations. When the time comes that state and federal regulations toughen the limits on PFAS — or expand the list of PFAS for which water must be tested — it will be the informed consumers who can make sure their local water departments are following those regulations and keeping their customers safe.