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Non-Stick Products Make Life Easier, But Their Chemicals Are Showing Up in Drinking Water

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Residents of Cape Cod are no strangers to chemical contaminants in their drinking water. The military base here has been a Superfund site since 1989 due to jet fuel and other contaminants in the groundwater. But a new class of chemicals came onto the scene a few years ago, not only on Cape Cod, but around the country. They’re known as PFASs and they come from things like firefighting foam, flame retardants, and non-stick coatings.

They’ve been found in drinking water in many places in the U.S. and they’ve become a very hot topic in recent weeks.

In May, federal EPA officials blocked the release of a report about the prevalence of these chemicals in water supplies. Then, they removed or blocked reporters from a public meeting about these same PFAS chemicals.

Alyson McCann is Water Quality Program Coordinator for University of Rhode Island’s Cooperative Extension and she co-leads community engagement efforts for a new Superfund research collaborative focused on PFASs called STEEP.  

The goal of the group is to help discern the presence and sources of PFAS chemicals, and they’re using Cape Cod as a lab to try to figure out what the sources are, and how the chemicals move through groundwater and surface water.

The cause for concern is a growing number of studies that link these chemicals and negative health effects like low birth weight, some cancers, liver damage, and thyroid problems.

McCann explained that there is a health advisory level for PFOA and PFAS in drinking water, but the chemicals are not listed on the EPA’s list of contaminants that public works managers must test for in drinking water.

"They regulate 90-plus chemicals, but the PFOA and PFAS do not have enforceable levels, and are not tested on a regular basis," McCann said.

However, the EPA announced that they’ll be doing regional meetings on setting standards. The first meeting is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in late June.

STEEP will have an information Science Day on June 7th in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

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“Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.