Panel calls for tougher rules on ‘forever chemicals’ | News

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BOSTON — Massachusetts faces a looming public health threat from “forever chemicals,” according to a new report, which calls for tougher laws to reduce use of the compounds and more state and federal money to remove contamination.

The report, released by the Legislature’s PFAS Interagency Task Force on Wednesday, looked at data on contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in soil, water systems, consumer products and other goods and came up with a list of 30 recommendations to help address the problem.

A key recommendation calls for PFAS to be regulated as a class of chemicals, eliminating what some panel members called a “whack-a-mole” approach to regulating the diverse array of chemicals, some which have been linked to high cholesterol, liver damage and heightened cancer risk.

State Rep. Sally Kerans, D-Danvers, a panel member, said the report “sounds an alarm” about the toxic compounds’ threat to public health and the need for financial assistance from the state and federal governments.

“Our communities and public water systems cannot deal with the effects of these forever chemicals alone and we address this directly in our recommendations,” Kerans said. “Our state and federal government must help.”

The task force — which included state officials, lawmakers and public health experts — recommended taking steps to phase out the sale of consumer products and goods in Massachusetts that “intentionally” include PFAS, such as textiles, food packaging and children’s products, by 2030.

It also recommended pursuing possible litigation against known PFAS manufacturers to help the state recoup the costs for testing and remediation.

Many of the recommendations would require changes in state policy and approval from the Legislature. Panelists said they hoped the report’s findings would spur Beacon Hill to action.

To improve surveillance, the report calls on cities and towns to institute a PFAS testing requirement for private, drinking-water wells during a transfer of property or when a new well is permitted. The report also calls for creating a low-interest loan program to help homeowners cover the cost of testing and remediation.

It also recommended new purchasing standards for firefighters and other first responders whose clothing and gear often contain PFAS compounds.

Money for testing

The report doesn’t provide estimates on how much the changes would cost the state but notes that the federal government is making available funding for PFAS testing and remediation through the $1 trillion infrastructure law.

State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, the committee’s Senate chair, pointed out that the state has spent about $30 million since 2018 on PFAS testing and remediation but acknowledged the cost of the report’s recommendations would be “substantial.”

“We’ve already been investing quite a bit of money,” he said during a press briefing on Wednesday. “But there’s going to be quite a bit more money that’s going to be needed to mitigate and address PFAS contamination.”

Panelists pointed out that the state has also diverted $100 million to a loan program that helps local governments and schools fund PFAS remediation.

PFAS compounds were used to make consumer products from rain coats to upholstery and have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the human body and can take thousands of years to degrade.

Research has found potential links to illnesses such as kidney cancer and high cholesterol, as well as complications in pregnancies.

Water standards

Dozens of states are weighing proposals to eliminate PFAS in food packaging, firefighting foam and other products, in addition to setting limits on the amount of contaminants found in water.

Massachusetts was among the first states to regulate PFAS chemicals in drinking water, and it boasts one of the toughest standards in the country.

The state Department of Environmental Protection requires drinking water systems to test for PFAS under rules that went into effect last year. The state requires a plan to remove the contamination if tests for any of six types of PFAS exceed concentrations of 20 parts per trillion, or ppt.

New Hampshire set limits on four PFAS chemicals in public drinking water supplies, from 12 to 15 ppt. Its limits went into effect in 2019.

There are no federal standards for PFAS in drinking water, but guidelines set a combined limit of 70 ppt.

More than two dozen Massachusetts communities have drinking water systems that exceed those levels and are working with regulators to remove the contamination, MassDEP said.

A recent study by the the U.S. Geological Survey found PFAS compounds in 27 Massachusetts rivers and brooks, including the Merrimack and Shawsheen rivers.

In many cases, levels exceeded the state’s standard for drinking water of 20 parts per trillion.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at

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