PFAS Contamination in RI: New Report Details Sweeping Threat to Rhode Islanders’ Health
A new report from Rhode Island’s environmental watchdog paints a harrowing picture of widespread PFAS contamination in the state’s water systems. With 44% of water supplies sampled showing these toxic “forever chemicals,” communities face unprecedented health risks.
A shocking new draft report from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) has revealed alarming levels of toxic PFAS chemicals polluting waterways and drinking water across the state, posing a major public health crisis.
PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a ubiquitous class of over 14,000 synthetic compounds used widely since the 1940s in consumer products like non-stick pans, waterproof jackets, pizza boxes, and firefighting foam. Thanks to strong carbon-fluorine bonds, these manmade chemicals resist breaking down in the environment or human body, earning them the ominous nickname “forever chemicals.”
The health impacts of PFAS are extensive according to leading researchers. Exposure is linked to decreased fertility, developmental effects in children, cancers of the prostate, kidneys, and testes, liver damage, dangerously high cholesterol, and weakened immune function. Even small doses in drinking water may be unsafe, with safe levels still debated.
RIDEM’s findings show PFAS contamination is far more widespread in Rhode Island than previously realized. Testing of 87 public water systems between 2017-2019 revealed PFAs chemicals in 44% of wells and water supplies sampled. Furthermore, 15% of these systems, including schools in Glocester, Foster, North Smithfield, and elsewhere, had PFAS exceeding the new interim safety standard of 20 parts per trillion (ppt) set under Rhode Island law in 2022.
But the most egregious case of contamination can be found in Oakland, a village in Burrillville. Testing showed staggering PFAS levels of up to 114 ppt in the Oakland Water Association, a small public system providing water to about 175 residents. This level is far beyond the EPA’s lifetime health advisory limit of 70 ppt, let alone the new state standard.
Investigators quickly traced the source to the Oakland-Mapleville Fire Station located disturbingly close – just 100 yards away. The likely cause: years of PFAS-laden firefighting foam dripping and leaking from trucks housed in the station, contaminating the soil and groundwater. In response to this alarming crisis, over $2 million was spent extending municipal water lines to impacted residents of Oakland, proving that drinking water protection from PFAS is possible but extremely costly.
Sadly, Oakland is but one example of a statewide problem. Closed landfills, fire stations, wastewater plants, and former military bases have also emerged as major PFAS sources. There are over 70 closed landfills scattered throughout Rhode Island, and results show nearly all that have been sampled far exceed the safe limits for these toxic chemicals. The leaching landfills create plumes in groundwater that spread for miles.
Some 160 fire stations dot the Rhode Island landscape as well, each a potential source based on the Oakland case. At former military bases like the Naval Education Training Center Newport, extensive PFAS soil and groundwater pollution is present at levels up to 1,400 ppt, resulting from decades of unregulated firefighting foam use. Even the former Bradford Dye textile mill site in Westerly shows PFAS groundwater contamination reaching astonishing levels above 1,000 ppt.
Government agencies and businesses have made some progress on the PFAS front, but comprehensive solutions are still lacking. RIDEM strongly recommends prioritizing protection of drinking water through treatment systems and extending municipal water supplies when possible. But securing funding for such large projects is difficult, as is compelling culpable polluters to pay for remediation.
RIDEM further calls for enacting stronger regulations on PFAS production and use, implementing pollution prevention initiatives, and dedicating funds for cleanup efforts. But bureaucratic roadblocks remain as some corporations resist reforms that may reduce profits. Additionally, safely treating or removing PFAS during remediation remains technologically challenging.
In the meantime, the health of all Rhode Islanders remains at risk with each sip of water as PFAS continue infiltrating more water supplies. These toxic “forever chemicals” refuse to break down or disappear, persisting indefinitely unless action is taken. RIDEM’s eye-opening report makes it clear that PFAS contamination represents a sweeping environmental crisis in urgent need of consistent, concerted efforts from government, businesses, and communities before it’s too late.