Read the full article by Colleen Cronin (ecoRI News)

“BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Years before the state Legislature passed a law to set a new drinking water standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), John Wheeler spoke out about how these chemicals had found their way into the water at his home in the town’s Oakland village. 

Wheeler, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer eight years ago, decided to go to the press after he learned about the PFAS contamination and several other family members were diagnosed with cancer and other diseases.

Now the state is taking action to reduce exposure to PFAS, which are found in firefighting foams, food packaging and waterproof clothing and are linked to several cancers, fertility issues, and developmental delays in children. The 2022 law will require extensive testing, likely temporarily shut down several water systems, and reduce PFAS exposures, but it only targets one side of a complicated issue, experts who spoke to ecoRI News said.

By July 1, 2023, all of Rhode Island’s public water supply systems will be tested for PFAS. If a supply tests higher than 20 parts per trillion (ppt) for one or a combination of the most dangerous PFAS contamination listed in the legislation, those suppliers will have to find a way to remove the PFAS from the water or find a new source, while providing potable water to customers and testing the supply quarterly. 

The state Department of Health and Brown University tested several public water systems in 2017 and 2019 that met Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards at the time but exceeded the new state maximum and may need remediation.

Despite a lack of state regulations, some water systems have already been taken offline, either because of an abundance of PFAS contamination or an abundance of caution.

In 2017, the Oakland Water District, where Wheeler’s water came from, tested at between 88 and 114 ppt of PFAS, higher than the 70 ppt that the EPA considered the safety threshold at the time.

About 175 people depended on water from the contaminated system, and all of them had to rely on bottled water handed out by the state to drink and cook with until most of the homes in the area were hooked up to Harrisville water, said Richard Nolan, then secretary, treasurer, and operator of the water district.

The project cost about $3 million, a huge sum for an organization with previous annual operational costs of less than $5,000, according to Nolan. The Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank covered the main costs of the project, but most individuals paid out of pocket to hook their homes up to the Harrisville system.

Oakland’s water quality results came as a surprise to Nolan; weeks before the results, Oakland had won a national award for the great taste of its drinking water. 

But it was firefighting foam from the Oakland Mapleville Fire Department, which sits a few hundred feet up the gradient from the community well, that did the Oakland Water District in, Nolan said.

‘There’s probably other chemicals in the ground that nobody knows of,” Nolan said. “Someday, somebody will say, ‘Oh, this may be bad for you…’’

Wheeler’s family saw a string of bad health diagnoses before finding out that their water was contaminated. 

His daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few years ago, and his wife had had several nodules on her thyroid. Two of the family’s dogs, Sasha and Lakota, died from cancer. One of the pups had seen an improvement in her condition after starting to drink bottled water, according to Wheeler.” …