Public Water Suppliers Face Many Challenges

Massachusetts public water suppliers face a variety of challenges every day, in addition to their non-stop responsibility to deliver safe and reliable water to their customers. The detection of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and new state drinking water standards are only the latest challenge.

  • With many over 100 years old, waters systems face serious infrastructure challenges. System operators are tasked with developing plans to finance and replace infrastructure.  

  • Development places increased demand on limited water resources and pressure to protect water sources from pollution. Massachusetts public water suppliers are expected to manage both demand and protection.

  • On a regular basis, water suppliers overcome challenges to safety and quality, such as bacteria, manganese, arsenic and industrial compounds.  


PFAS: the New Challenge


Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of chemicals used for non-stick coatings and firefighting foams since the 1950s. The two most commonly studied PFAS  (perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) have been phased out of production and use in the United States, but may be used in other countries.  PFAS are resilient and do not degrade easily in soil and water.  As a result, they are widely found in the environment where they migrate to the food supply and drinking water.

How are people exposed to PFAS?


Consumer products and food are the largest source of exposure to PFAS, according to MassDEP.  Despite the discontinued manufacturing of certain PFAS in the United States, many commercial products still contain the chemicals because they are manufactured in other countries.  Products resistant to water, grease and stains may contain PFAS. Not only can people ingest the chemicals when exposed to these products, the PFAS may leach from discarded items into the environment.


Frequently Asked


Common household products known to contain PFAS

  • Prepackaged food

  • Insect-repellent chemicals

  • Fabric softener

  • Nail polish

  • Eye makeup

  • Moisturizers & hand creams

  • Antiperspirant/deodorant

  • Body wash/shampoo/conditioner

  • Dental floss & plaque removers


In addition to household uses, PFAS has been used in many industrial processes, not only in the products, but as coatings on machinery.  It was also prevalent in firefighting foams to extinguish oil and gas fires, which may explain why concentrations are found in waters supplies near airfields and firefighting training academies


Drinking water can be another source for these chemicals in communities with contaminated water supplies. “Such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility, for example, an airfield at which they were used for firefighting or a facility where these chemicals were produced or used,” according to MassDEP. 


MassDEP provides a map of communities where PFAS6 exceeds the maximum level. 

Are there health impacts to elevated levels of PFAS in drinking water?

We wish we had definitive answers on the health impacts, but more research is needed. This is what we know:

According to MassDEP, "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 ng/L.” (20ng/L equals 20 parts per trillion.)

MassDEP points out that “consuming water with PFAS6 above the recommended limits does not mean that adverse effects will occur.  The degree of risk depends on the level of the chemicals and the duration of exposure. The recommended limit assumes that individuals drink only contaminated water, which typically overestimates exposure, and are also exposed to PFAS6 from sources beyond drinking water, such as food.”

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. 


MassDEP and CDC both note more research is needed and ongoing.  As we await further scientific study, MassDEP has acted to set a drinking water standard, and if detected, public water suppliers will work in the best interest of their consumers to lower PFAS6 levels below 20 parts per trillion (ppt). 

(For more information on potential adverse effects and other important information for consumers, we recommend reading information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the MassDEP.)

Who should not drink water with elevated PFAS6 levels?


According to MassDEP, "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 ng/L.” (20ng/L equals 20 ppt.)


They can reduce their exposure by using bottled water that has been tested for PFAS6 for drinking, making infant formula and cooking foods that absorb water.  Water contaminated with PFAS6 can be treated by some home water treatment systems that are certified to remove PFAS6 by an independent testing group such as NSF, UL, or Water Quality Association. These may include point of entry (POE) systems, which treat all the water entering a home, or point of use (POU) devices, which treat water where it is used, such as at a faucet.  MassDEP offers additional guidance and resources regarding bottled and filtered water.

Why are there different limits on PFAS levels in drinking water?


Differing interpretations regarding scientific study results may explain the wide disparity on acceptable PFAS levels for drinking water issued by federal and state regulators.  For example, MassDEP has issued a new regulation setting the drinking water standard for PFAS6 at 20 ppt.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends PFAS concentrations in drinking water not exceed 70 ppt for two PFAS compounds: PFOA and PFOS.


CALIFORNIA                14 ppt (PFOA), 13 ppt (PFOS)

COLORADO                70 ppt (PFOA, PFOS combined)

CONNECTICUT           70 ppt (5 PFAS combined)

IOWA                           70 ppt (PFOA), 70 ppt (PFOS)

MASSACHUSETTS     20 ppt for 6 PFAS combined

MAINE                          70 ppt (PFOA/PFOS combined)

MICHIGAN                   70 ppt (PFOA/PFAS combined

MINNESOTA                35 ppt (PFOA), 27 ppt (PFOS)

NORTH CAROLINA     140 ppt (GenX – products developed

to replace PFAS after they were phased out of production.)

NEW HAMPSHIRE       12 ppt (PFOA), 15 ppt (PFOS), 18 ppt (PFHXS), 11 ppt (PFNA)

NEW JERSEY                3 ppt (PFNA); of 14 ppt (PFOA), 13 ppt (PFOS)

NEW YORK                   10 ppt (PFOA), 10 ppt (PFOS)

RHODE ISLAND           70 ppt (PFOA/PFOS combined)

TEXAS                          290 ppt (PFOA), 560 ppt (PFOS), individual limits for 10 additional compounds

VERMONT                    20 ppt (PFAS)

*Published limits as of June 2020.

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  • Non-stick cookware & containers

  • Aluminum foil

  • Wrinkle-free clothing

  • Water-proof jackets

  • Water-proof boots

  • Stain-resistant carpeting

  • Furniture fabric

  • Plastic building materials

  • Fast-food wrappers

  • Pizza boxes

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Should I worry about PFAS levels in my body?

Any consumer concerned about exposure to PFAS should consult with their medical provider. While it is widely found in the environment, the U.S. population’s PFAS “body burden” – the total amount of a chemical found in a person or animal – has dropped since the 1990s when domestic production of certain PFAS ceased. 


  • The median level of PFOA (a common type of PFAS) in people's blood serum has fallen from 0.005 micrograms per milliliter to about 0.002 micrograms per milliliter, according to data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.  Concentrations this small are neither known nor reasonably expected to harm people's health.


  • Production and use of PFOS and PFOA in the United States have declined. As the use of some PFAS has declined, some blood PFAS levels have gone down as well. From 1999 to 2014, blood PFOS levels have declined by more than 80%. From 1999 to 2014, blood PFOA levels have declined by more than 60%.


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