Current Events – Emerging Water Issue for All

Perhaps you saw a recent i-Team Investigative newscast on WBZ TV on the subject of PFAS/PFOS – Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – a family of chemicals used since the 1950s – that might be in drinking water in Massachusetts and across the country.chemical bonds

There was a flurry of posts on Facebook about the story, so I interviewed DPW Superintendent Sean Reese. The good news is that Reese is proactively engaged in the topic… but more on that in a minute.

What are PFAS? They are chemical compounds.

The EPA has identified over 4,000 (PFAS/PFOS) compounds in manufactured products. These compounds worked their way into mainstream America in the 1950s. In 1999, EPA started evaluating the potential hazards, and as of now, they have bundled the six most hazardous and will require water testing on these compounds moving forward. PFAS/PFOS are…

  • Characterized by a strong carbon-fluorine bond.
  • Mobile in groundwater, extremely stable, persistent.
  • Widely detected in soil, water, air, and food.
  • Some PFAS can accumulate in the food chain.

Health effects

  • Exposure can occur when someone uses, eats or drinks certain products that contain PFAS/PFOS.
  • When ingested, some of the compounds can build up in the body and, eventually cause harm,
    • including developmental effects in fetuses and infants;
    • effects on the thyroid, liver, kidneys, certain hormones and the immune system.
    • Some studies suggest a cancer risk may also exist in people exposed to higher levels of some PFAS/PFOS. (DEP)
    • PFAS/PFOS have been found in human blood, breast milk, fish and other animals and drinking water.

Used in many man made products

  • Non-stick cookware, food packaging, cosmetics, cleaning products, fleece, car and floor waxes, textiles, leather, carpets, and more.
  • Industrial processes and fire-fighting foam,
  • Stain and water resistant fabric…even ski wax. (Towns with ski slopes will be testing for residue in the ground from melted snow.)

Now that science has documented the risks, and the science has improved so tests can detect the presence of PFAS/PFOS in water, the EPA has created a standard for acceptable levels at 70 parts per trillion…that’s like an eyedropper of compounds in a swimming pool, according to someone I read.

How big are the eyedropper and pool, I ask?

Massachusetts DEP has chosen to set our standard much lower than EPA’s, that is 20 parts per trillion. But there is still work to be done on the protocols for testing and remediation. DEP hopes to have all of that in place by the end of 2020.

Here is a link to the Department of Environmental Protection website that has a wealth of information.


In 2015, PFAS were unregulated contaminants. Holliston tested for them at the state’s request and no PFAS were detectable, according to EPA. With the new standard, of course, this might not be the case.

“This is a difficult and complex emerging issues,” Reese said, “but we need to know what we are facing before the new treatment plant is built.” That treatment plant is slated to be up and running by late 2021 on Central Street at Well #5 and is essential to remove the iron and manganese that cause discolored water.

Reese intends to test for PFAS in advance of designing the plant. There are currently three technologies to remove the compounds from the water: activated carbon filtering, ion exchange and reverse osmosis. In designing the plant, he will utilize carbon filters as the most cost effective method. Reese says that the green sand filters in our existing water treatment plants will not do the job, so it is possible that they will need to be retrofitted someday down the road. It’s way too soon to get a handle on that.

Potential high risk sites in Holliston are the landfill, the former Axton Cross chemical plant and a few other scattered locations.

Fire Chief Cassidy notified Superintendent Reese in late 2019 that while Holliston HFD no longer used foam suppressants, the department used to have a foam truck because of the Axton Cross chemical plant. It was surplussed years ago. We also had a stored surplus of foam that had been manufactured before 2003. Thanks to a “take-back” program from the Baker Administration and Cassidy’s action, the state paid to remove 135 five gallon containers (6,075 lbs) of this “legacy” foam from Holliston in December.

Many global experts have warned that access to clean water will be the defining issue for the 21st Century. Reese quotes Ben Franklin who said, “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”

Modern day experts seem to agree that our water is 4.3 billion years old and all that’s here is all that there ever was or will be. That’s sobering. It’s all been reused a bazillion times and will be again. It’s FINITE.

And then mankind came along and started to invent wonderful products to make life easier, better and even safer, but everything comes at a cost and one thing is for sure…cleaning up water is going to cost a lot of money for many, many years to come!

Your comments?

Your comments and thoughts are welcome. And let me know if there is a Holliston topic you’d like to read more about.


4 responses to “Current Events – Emerging Water Issue for All”

  1. Lynne LaForce says:

    Thank you for taking the time to educate Holliston residents. It is nice to hear a water treatment plant is going in on Central Street.

  2. Lisa Kocian says:

    Thank you Mary!!! I knew nothing about this and am so glad to hear our DPW is aware and working on it!

  3. Janna Said says:

    Thank you SO much for reporting about this. I’m relieved to hear that PFAS is on the radar here in Holliston and that they will be addressing the issue in time for the new treatment plant. We must have a vision and plan in place for the future.

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