The State of Connecticut is making an increased effort to identify so-called “forever chemicals” that may be building up in certain water sources in the state.
PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a group of more than 4,700 chemical compounds that have been used since the 1940s. Found in products like cookware, food packaging and firefighting foam, they are held together by a strong carbon-fluorine bond. As a result, they build up — in soil, in groundwater, and in animals that ingest them, eventually reaching human beings.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, PFAS exposure has been linked to high blood pressure, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of certain types of cancer and low infant birth rates.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency tested water systems across the country for PFAS between the years 2013 and 2015. According to a 2016 analysis of the results, six million Americans were found to have levels of PFAS in their drinking water that exceeded the agency’s maximum contamination level of 70 parts per trillion.
Lori Mathieu, chief of the Environmental Health and Drinking Water Branch of the Department of Public Health, said that the federal agency did not find any significant contamination in Connecticut. However, she added that the federal agency only tested the largest water systems.
Since then, PFAS has been found in high concentrations in a few places in Connecticut. A private well near the Eastern Connecticut Fire Training School in Windham was found to contain levels of the chemical that exceeded the state limit. In June of 2019, a leak of firefighting foam at Bradley International Airport in Windsor released the chemicals into the Farmington River. In 2018, Greenwich reported high levels of PFAS in one of its private wells.
Last month, CT Water detected PFAS in three wells in Killingworth, one of which exceeded 70 parts per trillion. However, Dan Meaney, director of public Affairs and corporate communications at CT Water, said in an email that the company has a treatment system that will lower PFAS levels to 10 parts per trillion before it arrives in residents’ homes.
Risk of exposure
Heather Stapleton, a professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said that one of the higher-risk ways people could be exposed to PFAS is through drinking the water.
Stapleton said that when people drink water that contains PFAS, the chemicals enter the bloodstream via the stomach lining, where they bind to certain proteins. The chemicals have a half-life of three to five years.
“If exposure just continues, it’s hard to decrease concentrations,” said Stapleton.
She also said that the more toxic forms of PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, tended to be more prevalent in drinking water and less prevalent in household dust. While small children have more risk of exposure from household dust than adults do, Stapleton explained that PFOS and PFOA don’t absorb well through the lungs because of their chemical compositions.
While the federal Environmental Protection Agency sets a maximum contamination level for PFAS at 70 parts per trillion, some states set this number far lower. Vermont and Rhode Island limit contamination to 20 parts per trillion for five PFAS chemicals. New York allows a maximum of 10 parts per trillion for the two most common PFAS chemicals.
Connecticut’s current maximum contamination level is a total of 70 parts per trillion for five PFAS compounds.
Testing the waters
Gov. Ned Lamont convened a PFAS Task Force in 2019 to discuss how to address the chemical. The Task Force, a partnership between the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the state Department of Public Health, came up with several long-term goals. One of these was widespread testing of public water systems throughout the state.
The governor’s budget sets aside $408,000 in 2022 and $420,000 in 2023 to fund a chemist, a lab consultant, an environmental analyst and a toxicologist who would update drinking water standards and support widespread testing of PFAS throughout the state.
Mathieu said that Connecticut’s public water systems include about 150 reservoir systems and more than 4,000 wells.
“So it’s a lot to do,” she said.
Some private water companies, including CT Water and Aquarion Water Company, have completed separate testing for PFAS in their water systems. CT Water said that they had detected PFAS in the drinking water of 12 towns at levels of between 2 and 26 parts per trillion. Meaney said that CT Water has not yet finished testing all of its 200-plus groundwater sources for PFAS.
Aquarion Water Company reports PFAS levels ranging between 2 and 13 parts per trillion in Bridgeport, between 8 and 15 parts per trillion in Greenwich, and between 3 and 36 parts per trillion in Danbury.
Private wells provide water for approximately 23 percent of Connecticut residents. The state does not currently require any testing for these wells, although Mathieu said that they highly encourage it.
However, the cost is a potential hindrance. The Connecticut Regional Water Authority, the only lab in the state that does PFAS testing, charges $250 for PFAS analysis of a private well. Depending on the level of contamination, there are different technologies that can be used to filter the water.
Stapleton said that while she understands that testing is expensive, she believes it’s worth the cost. She said she had installed a PFAS filter in her own home.
Mathieu said she wasn’t sure whether concerns about PFAS would cause any of the more than 820,000 individuals who get their water from private wells to opt for a public water system. However, she hopes it will encourage them to test their private wells.
“It definitely awakens people to the fact that maybe they should be testing their water for some of the most basic things,” she said.
This story has been edited to include comments by Dan Meaney clarifying the extent of CT Water testing and that drinking water reaching CT Water customers in Killingworth met environmental standards after standard treatment procedures.