State waits on regulating ’emerging chemical of concern’

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island state health officials are holding off regulating a group of man-made chemicals used in non-stick products that are linked to cancer and other illnesses and are sometimes found in drinking water and soil.

The R.I. Department of Health issued the decision this week after it was petitioned by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Toxic Action Center to regulate a group of chemicals known as PFAS, or Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances.

PFAS chemicals have been linked to illnesses, including cancer, but questions remain about how they affect people’s health and in which doses, according to a recent published report by National Public Radio.

RIDOH Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the department shares concerns about PFAS chemicals, but it lacks sufficient data upon which to base appropriate regulations, and it prefers to wait for outcomes of additional testing and analysis before moving ahead.

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“RIDOH shares the petitioners’ concerns about the potential impacts of PFAS in public water supplies and understands the desire to regulate this class of chemicals and establish appropriate protective standards,” Alexander-Scott wrote in a letter Monday to the petitioners, explaining the department’s position.

“RIDOH has determined that additional research and analysis are necessary to better access the potential impacts of PFAS to Rhode Island public water systems before promulgating regulations for these compounds,” she said.

“Given the current scientific uncertainties, RIDOH believes it is appropriate to wait for more information, including the regulatory decisions of EPA [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and other states and its own analysis of local systems, prior to issuing any decision,” she added.

Last month, the EPA said it will begin the process of setting limits on PFAS. The EPA also said it has started the process of listing PFOA and PFOS – two kinds of PFAS – as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. The agency said that will help communities deal with existing contamination and recover costs from responsible parties.

“It took groundbreaking efforts to develop this plan,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said last month. “This is the first time we have utilized all of our program offices to deal with an emerging chemical of concern.”

PFAS are chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. They have been used in non-stick cookware, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, some firefighting foams, and products that resist grease, water, and oil, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The chemicals can be found near areas where they are manufactured or where products containing PFAS are often used. PFAS can travel long distances, move through soil, seep into groundwater, or be carried through air, according to the registry.

In response to contamination in surrounding states, RIDOH partnered with the R.I. Department of Environmental Management and Brown University in 2017 on a PFAS sampling study of small water systems located near the types of facilities that may have used PFAS, using the EPA’s health advisory threshold of 70 parts per trillion, according to Alexander-Scott.

RIDOH and Brown collected more than 60 samples from 40 water systems. The samples were analyzed for nine PFAS compounds. One public water system, Oakland Association in Burrillville, had levels higher than 70 parts per trillion and one source well in North Providence had levels between 35 and 70 parts per trillion.

In response, the state tested private wells in Burrillville, and the state and the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank are assisting the town with a state revolving fund loan to connect to an alternate water system, Alexander-Scott wrote.

In addition, the North Providence source well was replaced by municipal water, she added.

The Conservation Law Foundation and the Toxic Action Center filed the petition with RIDOH in February, asking the agency to adopt a drinking water standard to protect the public from five of the most common PFAS and to start the process of regulating those chemicals as a class.

The petitioners asked RIDOH to use Vermont’s health advisory threshold for PFAS of 20 parts per trillion.

“With the EPA’s national PFAS plan falling far short, it’s up to the states to protect us from these toxic chemicals,” Amy Moses, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Rhode Island, said in a statement Tuesday.

“The dangerous health effects of these substances have been known for years, and other New England states have committed to solving the problem,” Moses said. “Rhode Island needs to protect the public health and that starts with ensuring everyone has safe drinking water.”

Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Email him at