HomeNewsWhere did the PFAS in Hopkinton’s water come from? 

Where did the PFAS in Hopkinton’s water come from? 

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As many residents know, a Hopkinton Board of Health advisory remains in place for infants, pregnant women, nursing mothers and those who are immunocompromised. They are advised not to cook with or drink town water, and instead should use bottled water. The town offers a Bottled Water Rebate Program for affected residents.

This is due to the higher than allowed limits of PFAS detected in the Fruit Street well (#6) in July 2021. While for years the federal limit was 70 parts per trillion (notated as ng/L or nanograms per liter), Massachusetts adopted a stricter standard of 20 ng/L some years ago. The Fruit Street well tested at 20.9 ng/L, just slightly over, and this triggered a public notice and remediation process. Notably nearby wells 1, 2, and 3 were also tested and were shown to be below the legal limit.

On June 15, 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency tightened its lifetime health advisory levels for PFAS, lowering the recommendation to 0.004 ng/L, significantly lower than the previous federal limit of 70. Essentially, no amount of PFAS is safe, the EPA stated. The agency is expected to propose mandatory drinking water limits for PFAS later this year.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940s. Some of the chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body — meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects, including liver, blood, thyroid, fetal development and immune systems effects.

Long-term exposure to PFAS is detrimental to human health. Credit: European Environment Agency, Wikimedia Creative Commons

Following the discovery of PFAS, the Hopkinton Board of Health initiated a community advisory campaign, and as part created a presentation in 2022 indicating that the most likely source of contamination is the proximity to the wastewater treatment plant, located approximately 2,000 feet from Well 6. The 2022 report stated:

“An assessment was conducted of potential sources of contamination throughout the last few decades. The most common routes of PFA exposure, such as chemical waste from factories/power plants or firefighting foam, do not appear to be the cause in Hopkinton.

The most likely cause is actually from human waste. Because PFAS are so common in our bodies, food, and household products, it is often found in both solid waste and wastewater. It is hypothesized that PFAS in leaching fields from the Fruit Street wastewater treatment plant, as well as from private septic tanks, entered the water supply, since some of these fields overlap with water production zones for the town wells.”

According to DPW Director John Westerling, the town has not committed resources to study the source of the PFAS because to do so would take many years and potentially cost millions of dollars. Rather, the town is focused on remediation efforts. DPW is currently in the process of finalizing a bid package and identifying contractors who will build a dual carbon and resin filtration system for Well 6. Voters approved partial funding for this project in 2022 and the Select Board is expected to discuss using American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover the remaining amount in their April 4 meeting.

In concert with this, the town is working with the Town of Southborough to allow a connection to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), which is fed by the Quabbin reservoir. The MWRA is tested on a quarterly basis and has been shown to be PFA-free. Last Saturday, Southborough voters approved an independent audit of the design and engineering plan, which was a criticial step in the process. If the connection is successful, Hopkinton will ultimately retire its wells.

Connecting to the MWRA has an added benefit. As Hopkinton has grown, demand for water is exceeding supply during certain times of the year. “Last year, the Board of Health fielded several calls from residents complaining that their tap water had run dry,” said Director Shaun McAullife.

However, it is not just Well 6 that is contaminated. Several private wells, including those in use at Hopkinton Country Club and Highland Park have also tested above safe levels for PFAS. Those wells share the same aquifer as Well 6.

Birds-eye view of the Fruit Street athletic fields and Well 6

With no proven source of the contamination Hopkinton residents have been forced to speculate. Leveraging interviews and public records, HopNews has compiled the list of potential suspects below. 

In researching this article, DPW Director Westerling accurately commented that the only way to prove the source of contamination would be for the town to drill test wells above the aquifer and monitor the flow of water over several months, a process that is time consuming and expensive. Thus DPW’s sole focus on remediation at this point.

Suspect: Chemical fertilizers at HCC and on private lawns

Hopkinton Country Club

A town official who preferred to remain anonymous reported that Hopkinton Country Club (HCC) may have used Milorganite to grow the turf during construction of the golf course. Milorganite is made up of 100% biosolids (sludge) from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. Milorganite contains PFAS, according to a study done by the Sierra Club and Ecology Center. The superintendent of HCC, Justin Gagne, disputed this claim, saying the club has kept meticulous maintenance records showing that Milorganite was never used at the golf course, though the club does use a mix of artificial and organic fertilizers.

HCC relies on Small Water Systems Services (SWSS) of Littleton to provide water quality testing.  As part of their testing protocol, SWSS periodically tests both raw (at the well source) and finished water (which is filtered before reaching the tap). In a February 2023 test, the raw water at HCC tested at 242 ng/L, more than 8 times the Mass DEP limit, while the finished water tested at 9.51 ng/L. Although HCC does not have a filtration system designed specifically to filter for PFAS, both dilution and filtration is occuring naturally, making the water technically safe to consume, though it still exceeds the newly revised federal limits. 

Private lawns are often treated with fertilizers too, and this may have contributed to the contamination in Highland Park, which tested at 23 ng/L in December 2021. In the above mentioned study, researchers tested nine common fertilizers made from municipal sludge and found that many contain PFAS.

  • Cured Bloom (Washington DC)
  • TAGRO Mix (Tacoma, Washington)
  • Milorganite 6-4-0 (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
  • Pro Care Natural Fertilizer (Madison, Georgia)
  • EcoScraps Slow-Release Fertilizer (Las Vegas, Nevada)
  • Menards Premium Natural Fertilizer (Eau Claire, Wisconsin)
  • GreenEdge Slow Release Fertilizer (Jacksonville, Florida)
  • Earthlife Natural Fertilizer (North Andover, Massachusetts)
  • Synagro Granulite Fertilizer Pellets (Sacramento area, California)

Eight of the nine products exceeded screening limits for two chemicals – PFOS or PFOA. The study found that “American gardeners can unwittingly bring PFAS contaminants home when they buy fertilizer that is made from sludge-biosolids”.

Suspect: Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF)

Firefighters deploying Aqueous Film Forming Foam

When Mass DEP initially provided notice to the town that PFAS was in the water, residents naturally wondered where it had come from. At the time, DEP speculated that given Hopkinton’s proximity to I-90 and I-495, at one point firefighters could have been called to extinguish a large car fire, and in the process used AFFF to control the blaze, which is known to contain PFAS. The foam leaked into the ground, contaminating the well, DEP theorized.

But when questioned about this possibility, Deputy Fire Chief Gary Dougherty and other firefighters refuted this claim, saying no one on staff can remember an incident like that taking place. The Deputy added that it is unlikely any firefighting operation would use so much foam that it would have an impact.

The Deputy further noted that the Hopkinton Fire Department recently shifted from AFFF in favor of a more eco-friendly solution.

Suspect: Sand and Gravel mining and Asphalt production

From the 1960’s to the late 1990’s the Fruit Street complex was home to Pyne Sand & Stone. It’s unknown what chemicals were used in the extraction processes and it’s possible that the site experienced contamination as a byproduct of the mining equipment used. 

In a similar case in 2020, the town of East Hampton, NY questioned whether a former gravel operation should be deemed a superfund site after being classified as such by the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Soil and groundwater samples showed high levels of both perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

But across town…

In what may be a strange coincidence, in March 2022 Mass DEP served the MetroWest YMCA with notice that one of their wells (02G) contained a staggering 134 ng/L of PFAS, almost double the then federal limit and nearly 6 times the Massachusetts limit. The YMCA is on East Street, 7.5 miles from Fruit Street, making it impossible for them to share the same aquifer. 

Yet both Fruit Street Well 6 and YMCA’s 02G do have something in common. Well 02G lies 1,300 feet from Aggregate Industries Ashland, where they extract gravel for use in the production of asphalt, which is manufactured in that location. Two other Aggregate Industry properties in the Commonwealth have PFAS issues associated with their groundwater and ponds. HopNews has filed a Public Records Request with the Department of Energy & Environmental Affairs for the full detail of these violations.

MetroWest YMCA, Ashland Reservoir, and Aggregate Industries mining operation

MetroWest YMCA CEO Rick MacPherson was quick to assuage community concerns by pointing out that Well 02G has been used for irrigation only and not drinking water for the campers.

In what may be a related case, on March 6 the Massachusetts Department of Public Health issued a fish consumption advisory for the Ashland Reservoir, stating that children under 12, pregnant women, nursing mothers, women of child-bearing age are advised to consume no fish from that lake. The reservoir is a little more than 1,100 feet from Aggregate Industries.

Suspect: Fruit Street Turf Fields

Synthetic turf field systems initially were introduced in the 1960s. According to the EPA, Currently, there are between 12,000 and 13,000 synthetic turf sports fields in the United States, with approximately 1,200 to 1,500 new installations each year.

The original Fruit Street turf fields were installed in 2010. The surface was FieldTurf with a recycled tire crumb rubber infill. The major chemical components of recycled rubber are styrene and butadiene, the principal ingredients of the synthetic rubber used for tires in the United States. 

Styrene is neurotoxic and reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. Butadiene is a proven human carcinogen that has been shown to cause leukemia and lymphoma.

Over time, the infill breaks down into smaller pieces that are picked up on shoes, clothing and skin. These particles are tracked into homes and cars, and carried into the places where athletes live, play, eat and sleep. Exposure can continue for many hours beyond the time spent at the fields.

In 2021, Hopkinton voters approved the replacement of the surface, which now uses Envirofill as an infill, not crumb rubber. Envirofill is sand with an acryllic coating, and assumed to be non-toxic. But a 2016 report from the EPA concluded that research supporting the safety of alternative infills is “lacking or limited”. Because so little information is available, it is impossible to assess the safety of these materials.

As water soaks through the surface, microplastics are carried into the water supply. PFAS are “forever chemicals”, so they don’t break down and are not filtered out.

Meanwhile, in Portsmouth and other communities, turf wars rage

Our community has been deceived,” said one activist in the City of Portsmouth, NH.

In need of a new athletic field and already concerned about “forever chemicals” in its drinking water, the city council of Portsmouth, N.H., voted two years ago to install a new synthetic turf field only if it was “PFAS-free.” 

Portsmouth is no stranger to PFAS, which contaminate part of the city’s water supply due to the use of aqueous film forming foam at a former Air Force base there.

Aware of the Massachusetts findings, the city’s consultants — Weston & Sampson — promised in a February 2020 public meeting that the chemicals would not be an issue. In a PowerPoint slide, they said they would “require PFAS-free materials in the bid specifications,” and pledged that they already had documentation from two manufacturers to that end. That included a promise from the company FieldTurf that “Our supplier has confirmed that their products are free of PFAS, PFOS and fluorine.”

But local advocacy group Non Toxic Portsmouth argued that PFAS-free turf does not exist. On the day the field was being installed, member Ted Jankowski cut samples from rolls of the artificial turf before it could even be put in the ground. Those samples were sent to a lab in Michigan, which found high levels of organic fluorine.

Weston & Sampson then asserted that city officials had simply misunderstood their agreement. The bid documents only specify that levels of 30 compounds should be so low they cannot be detected by a particular EPA-approved laboratory method.

Citing similar concerns, the cities of Boston, Sharon, Wayland, Martha’s Vineyard and Concord all issued moratoriums on any new turf fields.

Returning to Hopkinton

In 2021, the Conservation Commission demanded that the new Fruit Street field surface must be PFAS-free. The Department of Public Works brought in Weston & Sampson, who made a presentation citing their testing in Wayland and Martha’s Vineyard. Based on Weston & Sampson’s research, ConComm, DPW and Parks & Rec signed off on the study and concluded it was safe.

To get a better understanding of our communities’ exposure, HopNews sent samples of both the old and new Fruit Street turf to the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan for testing. A follow-up article will present the results of the findings.

Summary

It may seem that the question “where did the PFAS come from?” is pointless to answer, given the increasing liklihood that within a few years Hopkinton will be connected to the MWRA. However, public water only serves 65% of town residents, with the remaining 35% on artesian wells. In all probability, some of those wells are contaminated with PFAS, but because water quality testing is expensive and inaccessible it remains out of reach for many residents. 

In the Commonwealth, only four labs are certified by Mass DEP to test drinking water for PFAS. But this is misleading; a simple phone call revealed that many only work for municipalities now and are not able to meet residential demand. 

Even if a well tests positive for PFAS, “there is no home water treatment system that is certified to meet the DEP standard yet,” said Mary Jude Pigsley, the regional director of the MassDEP Central Regional Office in 2021.

Hopkinton residents are undoubtedly left with many unanswered questions as to the source of the contaminants.

* this article has been corrected to reflect the actual date of the revised EPA guidelines, which was June 15, 2022, not June 15, 2023.

* this article has been corrected to reflect the Select Board’s April 4 discussion of using pandemic-related funds to pay for the Fruit Street filtration system.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Nice article, well done.

    You might consider contacting Vitasalus. They manufacture a filter system using activated charcoal, and can provide an EPA documentation as the the efficacy of activated charcoal in removing various chemicals, including those of the PFAS family.

    I have NO conection to Vitasalus. We do have a Vitasalus whole-house filter system that we’ve had for several years.

  2. Great article. PFAS is a difficult problem to solve, but the solution starts with awareness. This article provides a well researched overview and hopefully fires up some new conversations and initiatives. The PFAS in private wells is a new piece of information to me, but it makes sense. I guess all of those well water home owners will need to install/maintain advanced filtration systems. There should be some sort of state rebate/incentive program for water filtrations systems.

  3. One of the largest hazardous dump sites is behind Bullard Abrasives in Westborough, into Cedar Swamp which is part of the same aquifer as the Fruit St station and Sudbury river. I did a report on the water in Hopkinton while at Hopkinton High in 1966. Woodville people sometimes glow in the dark.

  4. This is an impressive piece of journalism, showing significant research and an ‘approachable’ writing style. The graphics are a good addition, especially the aerial views illustrating connections. Thank you for this deep dive into the question of the origination of PFA’s.

  5. Nicely written and extremely informative. One minor correction though, the EPA tightened it’s advisory levels back in June 15, 2022 not 2023.

  6. “In researching this article, DPW Director Westerling accurately commented that the only way to prove the source of contamination would be for the town to drill test wells above the aquifer and monitor the flow of water over several months, a process that is time consuming and expensive. Thus DPW’s sole focus on remediation at this point.”

    Remediation would imply the problem is corrected. Remediation does not mean abandonment of current situation. Without actual remediation Hopkinton’s natural water supply remains contaminated. Poisoning of the water supply should not go unchecked.

  7. Good article, well thought out facts. This PFAS problem is worldwide. Here is an article from C&E News that explains that every drop of rain on the planet contains PFAS: https://cen.acs.org/environment/persistent-pollutants/PFOA-rain-worldwide-exceeds-EPA/100/i27. Also, many would be surprised to learn that our greatest exposure is from food contaminated by PFAS in the packaging. PFAS is also used in the “proprietary” chemicals employed in hydro fracking for oil and natural gas where they are intentionally injected into the ground. These contamination sources are well known to regulators who choose to let it continue. We need to speak up to eliminate these sources.

  8. This is one of the best articles concerning the potential sources of PFAS contamination to groundwater I’ve read so far. My company, SafeWell (based in Bolton, MA), has been testing and providing treatment options for PFAS contamination – mostly for private well owners – for several years now. Because of our health-based approach to water quality, I’ve also done a considerable amount of reading on the health risks related to PFAS exposure as well as tracking evidence of potential sources. Your recognition and explanation of contamination sources other than firefighting foam and industrial sources is a “breath of fresh air” … finally someone else sees this!
    Thank you!!!

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