As a part of efforts to ensure the health and safety of Rhode Island's drinking water supply, the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) and researchers from Brown University will begin sampling at approximately 50 water systems throughout the state next week to collect data on a group of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
PFAS are 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. The majority of PFAS have been phased out in the United States because of concerns about health effects. 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.
"Sampling for PFAS is one of the many forms of rigorous, frequent testing that is done on Rhode Island's water supply," said Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH. "Although exposure to PFAS from everyday consumer products is common, research suggests that prolonged exposure at high levels may be unhealthy for some people. This water sampling initiative will help us identify any sources of PFAS in Rhode Island and partner with water systems to ensure that customers are notified and treatment plans are put in place right away."
The sampling to start next week is a follow-up to previous rounds of sampling. Between 2013 and 2015, all public water systems in Rhode Island serving more than 10,000 people were tested for PFAS. In 2017, RIDOH and Brown sampled 41 smaller public water systems and licensed child care facilities near potential sources of PFAS after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lowered the health advisory for these chemicals. These additional 50 systems are being tested to further assess the situation in Rhode Island and because new information is available about potential sources of PFAS. States throughout the country have done, and are doing, similar sampling. The data gathered will help state and local agencies (such as RIDOH, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and town planners) understand the occurrence of these chemicals in Rhode Island.
In previous rounds of sampling, one water system in Rhode Island exceeded the EPA health advisory level. (This water system – Oakland Association, located in a section of 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.
The water sampling to start next week will take place through June for public wells and licensed child care facility wells located within a half mile of a fire station and for all schools that are stand-alone public water systems that have not yet been sampled. In addition, re-sampling will occur at water systems serving over 10,000 people.
Two specific types of PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). The EPA health advisory level is 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA or PFOS, or a combination of PFOA and PFOS. Before 2016, the health advisory level had been 200 ppt for PFOA and 400 ppt for PFOS.
Researchers are still learning about the health effects of exposure to PFAS. However, the EPA's health advisory levels are developed to include a margin of protection to prevent exposure to water at levels that could be harmful to more vulnerable populations. Scientists believe that pregnant women and children could be more vulnerable to PFAS. 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.
With the support of federal resources, RIDOH is funding the sample analysis. Sampling will be conducted by researchers from the Brown University Superfund Research Program (more information at the link below) in collaboration with Texas Tech University and RIDOH's Center for Drinking Water Quality. The samples will be tested by the RIDOH State Health Laboratories. These Brown University staff and graduate students have been trained in the specific protocol for collecting the water samples.