The Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) is working with the Oakland Association water system in a section of Burrillville to ensure that consumers, as well as private well owners in the area, take specific health precautious after tests revealed a slightly elevated level of certain man-made chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), in the system's drinking water.
In early August, RIDOH's Center for Drinking Water Quality began working with a group of researchers at Brown University to conduct sampling at approximately 35 selected water systems to collect data on PFAS. The systems that were selected for this testing are located within one mile of a facility that could potentially contain these chemicals or may have in the past. These chemicals are currently unregulated in drinking water, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently lowered the health advisory level for two PFAS [Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS)] to 70 parts per trillion (ppt) because of new findings on health effects. EPA's health advisory levels were calculated to offer a margin of protection against adverse health effects to the most sensitive populations: fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed infants. The health advisory levels are calculated based on the drinking water intake of lactating women, who drink more water than other people and can pass these chemicals along to nursing infants through breastmilk.
Exceedances of this new health advisory were recorded during sampling at Oakland Association, Inc., which serves approximately 175 people. The sampling protocol calls for resampling whenever exceedances are identified. The three sample results collected from the system were 88 ppt, 69 ppt, and 114 ppt. The results were received between September 14th and September 29th.
The Oakland Association water system has provided specific health guidance to its customers, which includes recommendations to not boil water (boiling water concentrates these chemicals) and to use bottled water or other licensed drinking water until the level of PFAS is below the health advisory. This bottled water or water from a different source should be used for drinking, food preparation, cooking, brushing teeth, and any activity that might result in swallowing water.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is developing a process to provide bottled water at no charge to customers served by the Oakland Association who would not be able to obtain bottled water themselves without financial assistance.
In addition, RIDOH, with the support of DEM, will hold a community meeting for customers of Oakland Association on Tuesday, October 3 at 6:00 p.m. at the Burrillville Police Department Community Room at 1477 Victory Highway.
People who use private wells within a quarter mile of the Oakland Association well that was sampled are being given guidance on how they can get their water tested.
While consumers are taking these precautions, Oakland Association is already developing a plan of action with RIDOH to reduce these chemicals to acceptable levels, which could include treatment or connecting to a new water source. DEM will conduct an investigation to determine the source of the contamination. Additionally, a small number of non-residential sites near Oakland Association that have their own water systems, such as restaurants and churches, will be sampled.
All the other results on other systems sampled in Rhode Island thus far have been below 70 ppt. Sample collection will continue for at least another week.
Studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over the health advisory level may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants; cancer; and effects to the liver, immune system, or thyroid.
Under the direction of the EPA, all public water systems in Rhode Island serving over 10,000 people were tested for PFAS between 2013 and 2015. At that time, there were detections in Cumberland and Westerly. Since that time, follow-up sampling at those systems have indicated that the systems do not exceed 70 ppt.
PFASs are a class of man-made chemicals used in a variety of products and applications that are resistant to water, grease or stains including non-stick cookware, carpets, upholstered furniture, clothing, and food packaging, although the majority of PFAS have been phased out in the United States. Examples of facilities that have the potential to contain these chemicals due to use or disposal include industrial factories, airports, fire training academies, and landfills.
The EPA's new health advisory level takes into consideration the fact that drinking water may be a source of approximately 20% of PFOA and/or PFOS in a person's body but that consumer products and food are the largest sources of exposure to these chemicals for most people. Scientists have found PFOA and PFOS in the blood of nearly all the people they tested because of their use in everyday consumer products.
People can call RIDOH for more information at 401-222-5960.