R.I. Health Department to test 50 water systems for toxic PFAS chemicals

PROVIDENCE – Next week, the R.I. Department of Health and Brown University will begin testing about 50 water sources, including public wells and licensed child care facility wells located within a half-mile of a fire station, seeking evidence of toxic industrial substances called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

A list of the sites was not immediately available from the health department.

This effort is a follow-up of previous statewide tests, prompted by new information about potential sources of PFAS, the department reported. In June 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report connecting the use of firefighting foam to PFAS contamination of drinking water.

Testing will also include all schools that are stand-alone public water systems not yet sampled, the health department reported. In addition, re-sampling will occur at water systems serving more than 10,000 people. The water sampling will last through June.

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PFAS are man-made chemicals used in a variety of products and applications that are resistant to water, grease, or stains, including nonstick cookware, carpets, upholstered furniture, clothing and food packaging, according to a news release from the health department. Most applications of these chemicals have been phased out in the United States because of concerns about health effects.

Scientists believe that pregnant women and children could be more vulnerable to PFAS, the health department reported. Studies indicate that exposure to PFAS at levels higher than the health advisory level could result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants. Other potential health effects are cancer and damage to the liver, immune system and thyroid.

Examples of facilities that have the potential to still contain these chemicals due to use or disposal include industrial factories, airports, firefighting facilities and landfills.

Between 2013 and 2015, all public water systems in Rhode Island serving more than 10,000 people were tested for PFAS. In 2017, the health department and Brown sampled 41 smaller public water systems and licensed child care facilities near potential sources of PFAS after the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the health advisory for these chemicals.

In previous sampling, one water system – Oakland Association in Burrillville – is in the process of connecting to a municipal water system. PFAS was detected in 11 other public water systems, but at levels below the EPA’s health advisory level.

Rob Borkowski is a PBN contributing writer.