WESTFIELD—Questions of biomonitoring dominated Westfield’s second public forum on the city’s contaminated water yesterday.
Officials from several agencies and local government were on hand to discuss the city’s water contamination in city hall yesterday, with a forum open for residents to ask questions about water and health concerns, which includes two city wells remaining offline.
During the event, several residents asked questions about a version of blood testing, or biomonitoring, for the prevalence of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) in residents, and agencies updated residents on where they are in their investigatory processes related to contamination. The two city wells were previously taken offline after they were found to have levels of PFCs above the lifetime advisory limit of 70 ppt (parts per trillion) set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each of those attending in an official capacity continue to assure residents that Westfield’s water from the active sources is safe for consuming.
Those at the event to answer questions included members of Westfield municipal government, as well as Col. Jim Suhr from the Air National Guard at Barnes, Eva Tor from Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and Dr. Marc Nascarella, Director the Environmental Toxicology Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), among others.
Air National Guard
According to Suhr from the Air National Guard, they are currently in step two of their four-step investigatory process into the source of the water contamination, which has been indicated may have come from the use of firefighting foam at Barnes Air National Guard base.
Suhr said this has included drilling 14 new soil borings since the city’s last meeting, with five such reaching the water table below. In addition, Suhr said that water samples from previously-existing wells were taken, as well as soil samples.
Suhr also said that the samples are currently being analyzed by a contractor and the contractor has until February 2018 to do so.
However, Suhr indicated that it could be sooner as they continue to try and move the process along.
“We have been on the phone with them every day,” he said.
“As soon as we get the information we will release it,” he added.
Suhr also said that the base has been elevated to within the top three among federal bases that have had similar contamination issues. About 100 bases have been dealing with similar concerns, according to Suhr.
“We made our leadership aware that we are completely unique,” Suhr said, indicating that this is due to the base being situated above Barnes Aquifer.
Suhr said that step three is remedial investigation, which will include a feasibility study and a public hearing and vote to determine what is done next, followed by clean-up in step four.
According to Tor from MassDEP, this department is to investigate private wells.
“MassDEP’s role in all of this is looking at private wells,” Tor said.
“Our investigation right now is related to health effects of drinking water,” she added.
Tor said that they previously developed a phased approach to the task and have tested 57 private wells to this point. Of those 57, three wells have been found above EPA’s lifetime advisory limit and were all located on Sandy Hill Road.
Tor said that carbon filers have been installed into the homes with the elevated levels and have been “very effective” in treating the water.
Tor said that the process of investigation is continuing, with MassDEP anticipating to test another 20 private wells for PFCs. All results can be found through Westfield’s water department website.
Department of Public Works
According to Dave Billips, director of the Department of Public Works, the city is moving forward with the plans to construct a granular activated carbon filtration facility to treat the two affected wells, seven and eight, after it was identified as an effective treatment for PFC contamination.
However, Billips indicated that there is not a defined timeline for the completion of the project at this time.
Department of Public Health
According to Dr. Nascarella, Director of the Environmental Toxicology Program for DPH, they became involved after a letter was received from people concerned with the contamination related to understanding biomonitoring.
He said that the department was aware of the potential contamination of the public water supply, then later became aware of the private well work being done.
“What we later came to understand was that there was a private drinking well study that was being undertaken,” he said.
DPH then worked with MassDEP to “craft some messaging” related to potential health risks and this was sent to homeowners, according to Nascarella.
Nascarella then said that how this has progressed in Westfield is similar to what has occurred in Cape Cod, where elevated PFC water levels were also found.
“The way the investigation and the information is being shared and the way it’s unfolding here is not all that different from how it’s unfolding at Cape Cod,” he said.
“Great deal of uncertainty with how to deal with this chemical,” he added. “And a great deal of concern.”
Nascarella said that DPH has received requests to do biomonitoring testing on residents in Westfield, which could be used to measure the levels of PFCs in residents blood, but the department currently cannot.
“Currently the Massachusetts Department of Public Health does not have the technical capability,” he said.
However, Nascarella said that the department is currently evaluating getting a laboratory online for this purpose, but the establishment of this could take some time due to purchasing equipment, finding sufficient staffing, among other needs.
Kristen Mello, resident of Westfield, asked if there was a way to preserve blood samples until a laboratory or way to test is established.
However, Nascarella said that this is challenging.
“In doing that it has its own technical challenges,” Nascarella said. “It’s also difficult for the department to begin to collect samples. We can’t collect samples and preserve them for no reason.”
Ward One City Councilor Mary Ann Babinski voiced concerns over the amount of exposure that may have occurred prior to the EPA lifetime advisory limit. According to Babinski, the firefighting foam, which is considered by some to be the source of the PFC contamination, was used on the base until 1987 and testing for PFCs did not occur until 2013.
“When those health advisory levels are established that level is not meant to be interpreted as a bright line,” Nascarella said. “I don’t want people to interpret it as adverse health effects are likely.”
Instead, Nascarella said that it is a “reason to look closer at the water,” including understanding possible exposure and stopping the pathways by which the contamination occurred.
In addition, Nascarella said that DPH can provide assistance with understanding what potential exposure could lead to.
“What we can do is limit exposure now and begin to address specific questions from individuals,” he said. “We can connect you with specially trained physicians.”
Gail Bean, another resident of Westfield, voiced her concerns about the years where she was also using and drinking the water before the advisory came out.
“I go back to the issue of I was drinking the water when we didn’t know what was in it,” she said.
She noted possible health effects that some studies have shown related to PFCs, including kidney and thyroid issues.
“We, as a community, have that information that these compounds cause these problems,” she said. “But for the health of the residents, I want to know what is my level in my body, is it going up is it going down.”
Nascarella said that he understands the concern, but said that biomonitoring will not be able to tell what health impacts could occur.
“It will not be able to tell you if you should expect adverse health outcomes in the future,” he said.
Instead, Nascarella said that risk assessments can be done to determine the potential for adverse health effects.
Bean also asked that since other areas, such as New York and New Hampshire, have biomonitoring testing, could there be a way to utilize that for biomonitoring in Westfield.
“There are a number of different individuals at federal and state levels advocating to do exactly that,” Nascarella said. “It is technically possible to do what you’re describing.”
However, he said that “The challenge is that it answers or meets the need to the community.”
Nascarella later said that related to exposure, clinicians may need information from environmental toxicologists.
“We, me specifically, routinely working with physicians to accommodate that request,” he said.
For health-related concerns, Nascarella provided contact information from the Environmental Toxicology Program at the Bureau of Environmental Health. The phone number is (617)624-5757.
And if people wanted to learn more about drinking water quality, Nascarella provided information for the “MassDEP Drinking Water Program.” The phone number is (617)292-5770, and the website is www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/massdep/water/drinking.