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Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ found in Cambridge drinking water

“I would not drink that water. I would not use that water. I would not feed that water to my dogs. I would buy a filter immediately," one PFAS expert said.

The Walter J. Sullivan Water Purification Facility is the treatment plant for the city of Cambridge. PFAS chemicals have been detected in Cambridge’s municipal water. Water from the MWRA system will soon be used in Cambridge. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Increasing levels of toxic “forever chemicals” have been found in the drinking water in Cambridge, city officials said in a news release Friday.

As a result, the city will get its water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) beginning Tuesday.

Water testing in August found that levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the city’s water were trending upward, according to the release.

Since the city usually sees the highest levels of PFAS in its water in September, officials said they are temporarily switching water sources “out of an abundance of caution.”

Exposure to PFAS is known to cause health problems such as damage to the liver and the immune system. Because the chemicals don’t break down easily or quickly, levels of PFAS in the body are unlikely to ever meaningfully decrease.


MWRA water service will continue through the end of the year, and city officials estimate the switch will cost the city $2 million per month.

A filter at the Walter J. Sullivan Water Treatment Facility on Fresh Pond Parkway in Cambridge needs to be replaced before switching back.

The replacement process has taken longer than expected due to supply chain issues, according to the release, but the filter should help remove PFAS from the town’s water.

“Replacing the filter media will ensure that our PFAS levels will be reliably and consistently below the MassDEP regulatory standard in the short and long term,” Sam Corda, managing director of the Cambridge Water Department, said in the release.

The Boston Globe reported Sunday that the city discovered that levels of six PFAS chemicals were above state limits for drinking water. It reported that the state requires drinking water have no more than 20 parts per trillion of PFAS, but that Cambridge’s water came in at 21.6 parts per trillion in August.

The same day that the city announced the switch to MWRA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved to designate two types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — as hazardous chemicals.

The Globe reported that both these chemicals were found in Cambridge water, and that they were the chemicals with the highest concentrations in the water.


Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a Boston University environmental health professor, told the Globe that the fact that these two chemicals are increasing is concerning.

“The fact that PFOA and PFOS are the major ones is problematic — we know the most about the toxicity of these two PFAS,” she said.

Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in New England, told the Globe she doesn’t think Cambridge residents should be using or drinking the municipal water right now.

“I would not drink that water. I would not use that water. I would not feed that water to my dogs,” Bennett said. “I would buy a filter immediately.”

The Globe reported that Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan has advocated for permanently using MWRA water because of the high PFAS levels in the city’s water.


“We just don’t know what is, or is not, a safe level. And that’s a huge problem,” he said.

Cambridge water comes from the Stony Brook Watershed, which is part of the Charles River Basin and is located in Lincoln, Lexington, Weston, and Waltham.

But Cambridge is far from the only New England community dealing with PFAS contamination in its water.


In Westminster, state officials believe, PFAS entered groundwater from a composting facility and contaminated more than 200 properties.

Last year, officials in Easton sued makers of the chemicals, claiming that PFAS have contaminated the town’s drinking water.

In Wayland, officials have distributed bottled water to 1,400 households due to high PFAS levels in the town’s water.

In southern New Hampshire, about 1,500 wells have been found to contain PFAS as a result of emissions from a nearby plastics manufacturer.

In April, a state task force recommended the state enact stricter regulations on the chemical class and that they be phased out of consumer products.


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