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PFAS in Massachusetts – What Should You Know?

An emerging class of contaminants

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a group of synthetic organic molecules, primarily consisting of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate acid (PFOS). In both cases, the chemicals consist of “chains” of eight carbon atoms attached to fluorine and other atoms. This group of molecules proved to be extremely useful for a wide range of manufacturing and industrial applications due to its resistance to heat, water and oil, and inability to biodegrade easily. As a result, PFAS compounds have become some of the most widely used class of chemicals in the world.

What has is it been used for?

PFAS have been used to manufacture a wide range of consumer products including (but not limited to) cookware such as Teflon pans, pizza boxes and food wrappers, stain and water repellents, polishes, waxes, paints, carpeting and furniture. 

PFAS has also been used as a coating and water-resistant treatment for many industrial and manufacturing products, including semi-conductors, medical devices and as a metal plating bath. One of their main uses has been in aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) used for firefighting, and at military installations and commercial airports. Use of PFAS in fire-retardant foams has been one of the most prolific vectors of widespread contamination.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, although certain PFA compounds are now banned from manufacturing in the United States, and others are under state-specific evaluation for use and production or have been voluntarily recalled, they are still widely produced internationally. They can still be imported into the United States in consumer goods such as carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber and plastics.

Health and Exposure Concerns

The potential health effects from PFAS in humans in not yet well-understood by scientists. However, studies have indicated that high levels of exposure can result in functional changes in the liver, thyroid and pancreas. The Centers for Disease Control has issued warnings that PFAS may impact growth and development, reproduction, thyroid function, immunity and higher rates of certain cancers. 

PFAS exposure can come from food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, commercial household products, facilities or industries where PFAS is used or manufactured, drinking water (typically associated with proximity to a PFAS facility), and living organisms that have accumulated PFAS. Water plays an incredibly important role in PFAS exposure because these chemicals are highly soluble and cannot be removed by standard wastewater treatment methods or most home water filters.

Water contamination from and exposure to PFAS is currently a large contamination concern, though PFAS can also contaminate soil, air and surface water. Studies by the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University has documented PFAS contamination at 94 sites in 22 states (so far) and have provided an interactive site tracker to monitor future results. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) of EPA drinking water sampling from 2013-2016 showed that 194 systems serving 16 million people have been impacted by PFAS.

What are current federal and Massachusetts regulatory guidelines?

An earlier form of the PFAS chemical class, known as long-chain PFAS, was banned from manufacture in the early 2000s following lawsuits (namely against Scotchgard manufacturer 3M for and against Teflon manufacturer Dupont) and resulting public outcry. The chemical industry has since created a short-chain version of PFASs, removing a carbon molecule from the original, but retaining the same manufacturing properties. Currently, the federal government does not regulate short-chain PFASs. But the chemical class is on the EPA’s list of “unregulated contaminants.” The substances are monitored and the EPA can issue notices in instances of potential public danger.

The EPA has no current enforceable standards for healthy levels of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water, but in 2016, released a Drinking Water Health Advisory (HA) of 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt) for either PFOA or PFOS, or when both are found in a combined concentration. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has also not yet enforced criteria through the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). However, on June 8, 2018, MassDEP issued a drinking water Office of Research and Standards Guideline (ORSG) similar to the EPA’s recommendations of 70 ppt, but in addition to PFOA and PFOS, included three additional PFAS chemicals: perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA). MassDEP also provided guidelines for consumers and public water suppliers, as well as future considerations for health assessments and contaminant risks.

The MassDEP Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup has not yet issued reportable concentrations or cleanup standards for PFAS. However, they have established that PFAS may be considered a “release” under the Massachusetts Contingency Plan definition. Furthermore, PFAS is considered a hazardous material and subject to Chapter 21E enforcement, however it only requires notification if it is detected at concentrations that result in an Imminent Hazard.

MassDEP has also provided PFAS sampling and analysis guidance for Licensed Site Professionals (LSPs), including recommending when and where to sample for PFAS, how to sample for PFAS, sample collection methods and sequence, and proper field equipment. The guidance defers to the expertise of the LSP to develop a Conceptual Site Model and case-specific information to then determine a sampling strategy.

What should Massachusetts CRE stakeholders know?

As scientific knowledge and state and federal guidelines evolve, what should property owners, developers and lenders know to manage risk and lower liability?

First, environmental due diligence is critical for determining if a property was a location for manufacturing, use or release of PFAS compounds, thereby potentially acting as a source of regional groundwater contamination. Costs associated with liability, as the 3M and Dupont lawsuits illustrate, are significant. Rely on an experienced, knowledgeable Massachusetts LSP, familiar with State regulations, ever-changing recommendations, and 21E reports.

Secondly, all properties, but especially those with potable water on-site, should have drinking water sampling and laboratory analysis evaluation. The EPA has amassed data, tools and databases to communicate information about likely contamination sites and the latest known scientific studies.

Finally, be mindful that as Massachusetts possibly develops more stringent standards or sampling requirements, it may impact sites actively undergoing assessment or possible re-investigation of previously closed or remediated sites. The best way to lower risk is to engage with qualified and informed LSPs to perform careful, meticulous due diligence assessments.