BURLINGTON - In the past year, it has been realized that Burlington has a PFAS issue that can only be remedied by opening the emergency Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) pipeline on Adams Street.

In order to do that, the town needed to budget for an additional $500,000. Town Meeting passed a warrant article for that very purpose during night two of its May session.

Thank to the state’s new drinking water standards, the town has has to continued testing for a family of chemical compounds known as PFAS. The results continue to indicate the presence of PFAS in a concentration above the new standard, and the town is taking immediate action to address these results.

Recent testing of the Vine Brook and Mill Pond treatment plants detected per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at levels of approximately 40 parts per trillion (ppt). Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a new regulation setting the drinking water standard for six PFAS at 20 nanograms per liter (ng/L), equal to 20 parts per trillion (ppt) (referred to as PFAS6). The state set its own standards because these compounds are not yet regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Currently, EPA has an advisory level for two specific PFAS compounds (PFOA and PFOS) of 70 ppt. The 40 part per trillion figure is equivalent to one drop in the town’s water tank every six hours, for some perspective on the PFAS levels.

Due to the levels of PFAS in the town’s water supply, Burlington was directed by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to open its emergency pipe connection to the MWRA through Lexington. MWRA water does not have PFAS. This connection on Adams Street has been open since May 2021 and the town has been taking approximately 1 million gallons per day from it, resulting an anticipated purchase of about 383 million gallons, or $1.7 million for fiscal year 2022.

The town had only budgeted for the purchase of 150 million gallons, or $674,000 to supplement the local water production during the summer in order to meet daily water demands.

“The state mandated that we turn on the Adams Street connection for 1 million gallons of water per day,” said Ways & Means Vice Chair John Iler. “We were not expecting a need to do that, but because it is more expensive to use the MWRA water compared to our own town produced water, this [$500,000] is to cover that extra expense that we had no planned on.”

The $500,000 will cover the remaining cost of water purchased from the MWRA in 2022.

Town Meeting supported the budget request by a clear majority.

Further information on PFAS

PFAS are a family of manmade chemicals used for non-stick coatings and firefighting foams. Manufacturing of certain PFAS was discontinued in the U.S. about 30 years ago, but they may still be used in imported products. PFAS are resilient and do not degrade easily in soil and water. As a result, they are widely found in the environment and many consumer products where they migrate to the food supply and drinking water. In fact, most people already have concentrations of these chemicals in their blood as food and consumer products are additional points of exposure.

The DEP recommends consumers in a sensitive subgroup (pregnant or nursing women, infants and people diagnosed by their health care provider to have a compromised immune system), are advised not to consume, drink, or cook with water when the level of PFAS6 is above 20 ppt. The DEP says that “consuming water with PFAS6 above the drinking water standard does not mean that adverse effects will occur. The degree of risk depends on the level of the chemicals and the duration of exposure.’’

There are scientific studies that suggest potential links between exposure to certain PFAS in the environment and health effects. The studies have looked at the effects on the development of fetuses and infants, the thyroid, the liver, kidneys, hormone levels and the immune system, as well as if a cancer risk exists for people exposed to levels well above the drinking water standard.

Sanchez expounded further that it would take a “lifetime of drinking” water with this low amount of PFAS in it to affect an individual without a compromised immune system.

There are currently 40 communities and counting in Massachusetts that have similar high levels of PFAS.

The DEP and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control both note more research is needed and ongoing, and it is important to remember consuming water with high PFAS6 levels does not mean adverse effects will occur. While awaiting further scientific study, Mass DEP has acted to set a drinking water standard and statewide, public water suppliers are working in the best interest of consumers to lower PFAS6 levels where they are found to be at or above 20 ppt.

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