A new report on the state of America’s drinking water supply is again highlighting the problem of “forever chemicals” in the environment, including a recent positive test result from drinking water in Shelburne.
The Guardian newspaper teamed up with Consumer Reports to sample 120 water systems in the nation, and found that almost all of them — 118 of 120 — had detectable levels of lead, arsenic or PFAS chemicals found in household products from cookware to rugs.
Included in the report was a noteworthy test result from Shelburne that indicated PFAS levels of 5.77 parts per trillion. That’s well below the federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion and Vermont’s more stringent 20 parts per trillion level.
But it is more than has been reported by the water system serving much of Shelburne, the Champlain Water District, raising questions about how the contaminant made it into the sample.
“We don’t have any PFAS detected in our source water,” said Joseph Duncan, general manager of the Champlain Water District.
The district delivers drinking water from Shelburne Bay to 75,000 people in eight towns, including South Burlington, Essex and Milton.
The district samples for PFAS both at its treatment plant on Queen City Park Road and at points in the water distribution network, but not in people’s homes, he said.
Tests performed in 2019 and in 2020 both came back as “non-detect,” meaning the sample has less than 2 parts per trillion, and the five PFAS compounds Vermont regulates were considered not detected. The Guardian story also included a result of 1.74 parts per trillion from Bennington, but that falls below what is considered detectable by the state.
Complicating the issue is that the sampling regimen utilized by the publications relied on volunteers, and the conditions under which the water sample was taken could not be confirmed.
PFAS chemicals are prevalent in clothing and a range of consumer goods, and sampling must be done with precision, Duncan noted.
“At the parts-per-trillion level, you have to be very careful with how you collect the sample in order to not cross-contaminate it and wind up with a false positive,” Duncan said.
He stressed he was not questioning the competence of the volunteers or the value of the reporting, and said he supports greater public awareness of water quality issues. Nevertheless, a single data point from an unknown origin that doesn’t align with the district’s own regular sampling results makes drawing conclusions difficult, he said.
Water quality advocate James Ehlers said he found it telling that the district was sampling at the source and not at the point that really matters to customers — the tap.
“I think the way that you sample, in large part, can determine the results that you get,” Ehlers said. “It’s really easy not to find something you’re not looking for.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation required water systems in Vermont to test for the five PFAS chemicals it regulates following the 2016 discovery of widespread contamination of groundwater in Bennington.
A toxin called perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA, was detected in private wells near a North Bennington manufacturing plant once operated by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. Among other fines, the company has agreed to pay $25 million to extend municipal water service.
The subsequent testing has turned up 10 water systems in the state, most of them small, that have had results above the 20 ppt standard since 2019. They range from Mount Holly School at 323 parts per trillion to others like the Killington Village Inn at 20.03 parts per trillion. The state is helping the systems perform the testing and fund fixes where possible.
Water systems aren’t the only places where the class of chemicals is turning up. Contamination from the Vermont National Guard Base in South Burlington is reaching the Winooski River, as Seven Days reported in 2019.
For years, soldiers trained with and used firefighting foam containing PFAS, which seeped into the ground and reached groundwater. The Guard has spent millions on cleanup and monitoring efforts that are expected to last years.
Ehlers says a more aggressive response is needed.
“The state needs to be taking this as seriously as it took COVID,” Ehlers said.
There is a bill in the legislature, S.20, that seeks to restrict the sale of consumer products containing PFAS, including some firefighting foam, food packaging, rugs, ski wax and children's toys.
Ehlers says the bill doesn’t go far enough, and should also ban all fluorinated firefighting foams and force landfills to contain their leachate.
Despite the water quality challenges of Lake Champlain, Shelburne Bay is a safe source of drinking water, Duncan said. The water is taken from two intake points in a trench 80-feet below the bay, where surface contamination rarely reaches, he said.
Shelburne Bay is fed by Potash Brook in South Burlington and the LaPlatte River in Shelburne, and contains roughly 3 billion gallons of water, so any PFAS flushing into it would be highly diluted, Duncan noted.
The contamination reported in the Guardian could have been introduced after the water left the lake, from sources such as waterproof tape wrapped around pipe fittings or materials in the fixtures themselves, he said.
While water sampling is generally best done by professionals, Duncan said he supports greater citizen awareness of the problem and legislative efforts to clamp down on PFAS products.
“The more we continue to produce materials with PFAS, the more prevalent it could potentially become in our environment and have the potential to work its way into different water sources,” Duncan said.