Pilot project testing PFAS in school water supplies underway across state
BENNINGTON — Results on the first tests of a state pilot program analyzing levels of a group of human-made, potentially harmful chemicals in school water sources are expected next month.
Ten schools — several of them in the northern part of the state — were tested for five per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS.
No Bennington County schools have been tested at this point, officials said.
"We're really doing this out of an abundance of caution," said Chuck Schwer, director of the waste management and prevention division of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. "We're nervous that it could happen, but we're certainly hoping that it's not going to happen. We felt it was prudent enough to at least look."
PFAS are a large group of chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. Some studies have shown that PFAS may affect growth, learning and behavior in babies and older children, increase cancer risk and cholesterol levels, interfere with the body's hormones and lower a woman's chance of becoming pregnant.
The school testing is part of the DEC's broader PFAS sampling approach, developed after the discovery of PFAS in drinking water in Bennington in 2016.
For school testing, the DEC identified what it felt was the most vulnerable of sites, looking at those that had their own on-site drinking water wells, Schwer said.
About 129 schools in Vermont fit that criteria, but the department didn't want to sample all of them at this point, he said.
So officials considered what schools might have the most potential of having contaminated wells, using past data to do a vulnerability assessment.
"We looked at past testing to see if the well [in question] was influenced by other contaminants, like chloride from road salt," he said.
In Bennington, the Hiland Hall School has been tested five separate times since 2016.
PFOA has been detected in four of the five samples, but at concentrations just above the detection limits of the analysis, ranging from 2.3 parts per trillion to 3.43 ppt, Schwer said in an email.
The 10 Vermont schools that were selected for the initial pilot testing are: Warren Elementary, Lamoille Union USD 18, Brookfield Elementary, Smilie Memorial Elementary, Sharon Elementary, Grafton Elementary, Charleston Elementary, Marlboro Elementary, Ripton Elementary and Eden Central School, according to a July 10 press release from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
These schools were most likely to have been affected by PFAS used in floor cleaners and waxes, according to the release.
They are being tested for five PFAS, including PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)
Samples were taken the week of July 9; results are not expected for about four weeks, said Elle O'Casey, director of communications and outreach for the Agency of Natural Resources.
A plan to test other schools has not been set.
"It really depends on what we find," Schwer said. "If we get half with [contamination] ... likely, we would expand."
The Vermont Department of Health has also updated its health advisory for drinking water of 20 ppt to include three more chemicals aside from PFOA and PFOS.
They are perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA) and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA).
Vermont calculates this standard based on infants up to one year old.
"You have to inquire — how much water does your sensitive population drink?" said Sarah Vose, state toxicologist at the Vermont Department of Health. "Children, by nature, drink more water and eat more food per body weight than adults do."
Residents who live in the "limited number" of locations exceeding the updated advisory have been notified, according to the ANR release. These locations will be re-sampled and bottled water offered to those affected.
In February 2016, the Department of Environmental Conservation initiated an investigation into potential PFAS contamination around two former ChemFab Corp. factories in Bennington.
The investigation led to the discovery of widespread contamination in over 300 drinking water wells in the Bennington area, mostly with PFOA.
More than 400 wells tested positive for PFOA, and more than 300 had concentrations of PFOA and PFOS greater than the state's drinking water standard of 20 parts per trillion.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BEN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.
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