Firefighting foam linked to water contamination across Massachusetts

State environmental officials are tracking an emerging threat to drinking water across Massachusetts linked to a firefighting foam used at military installations and airports.

“Back in 2012, 2013 we started showing these contaminates” said Dan Santos, director of the Barnstable Department of Public Works.

Testing revealed toxic levels of chemicals in the soil at the county fire and rescue training academy, only a few hundred yards from the town’s watershed. He says it was from years of use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) at the facility adjacent to the Barnstable Municipal Airport.

“When they use the firefighter foam to put out fires it goes on the ground. That foam which contains these chemicals seeps into the soil and binds to the soil particle and it stays there,” Santos said.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for two chemical compounds - known as per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS in drinking water.  Santos said they found numbers in the thousands in the soil at the fire training facility.

>>MORE: What you need to know about PFAS chemicals

He says every time it rains, or they spray water on the ground, those PFAS compounds are forced into the groundwater contaminating the drinking water for all of Hyannis.

“We had a public health advisory from the EPA saying this could be harmful to pregnant women, infants, babies. So, we made the decision to not operate those wells based on that information” said Santos.

The town of Barnstable has spent about 16 million dollars between testing and installing huge carbon filtration systems near the wells to make their drinking water safe again. Santos fears that PFAS contamination goes beyond the Cape.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, military bases and airports across the state have found elevated levels of PFAS compounds in groundwater from the use of AFFF firefighting foam. That includes areas around Joint Base Cape Cod, Devens, and Springfield.

>>MORE: What are PFAS and why are they a problem?

Even at Martha’s Vineyard Airport, one of eight airports across the state required by the Federal Aviation Administration to have the firefighting foam on site.

In November, the airport commission sent a letter to residents near the airport warning their voluntary investigation revealed elevated levels of PFAS in wells ranging from 45.5 to 544 parts per trillion.

Bob Rosenbaum, Chair of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission said to Boston 25 News in a statement:

"As we learned more about these compounds and the risks they might pose, we knew testing the groundwater around the airport was simply the right thing to do. We are proceeding in a responsible manner and will continue to follow a transparent process, sharing test data as we receive and analyze them."

"I think it's important to take this kind of contamination seriously," said Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute.

She’s been studying PFAS chemicals in drinking water across Cape Cod since 2010.  Schaider says almost everyone has some level of exposure to PFAS. The chemical compounds are found in many products like non-stick cookware and waterproof clothing.

She says scientists are increasingly concerned about even low levels of PFAS exposure.

"We’ve seen associations between exposure to PFAS and certain harmful health effects, such as cancer, elevated cholesterol, thyroid disease, low birth weight," Schaider said.

Cheryl Osimo has lived in Hyannis for decades. She was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 1991.

”I do believe I was exposed to toxic chemicals. I can't say for sure it was in my water” said Osimo.

Once in remission from breast cancer, she became an activist for clean drinking water.  She's concerned that federal and state regulations don't require groundwater testing for PFAS at airports that use fluorinated firefighting foam.

“What is scary to me is that we don’t know all of the locations where people are drinking contaminated water,” said Osimo.

In a statement, the DEP spokesman told Boston 25 News:

"The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is committed to ensuring residents have access to safe and clean drinking water through efforts including technical assistance to schools to sample drinking water fountains, and awarding $1.2 billion in loan financing over four years for projects to improve drinking water quality, and looks forward to working with stakeholders to develop additional standards that continue to protect the Commonwealth's water quality."

>>MORE: PFAS Information: A petition for rulemaking to establish a treatment technique drinking water standard for PFAS

Just last month, the FAA put out an alert to all airports that use fluorinated foam saying they're focused on finding alternatives but will still be required to use the foam until at least 2021.