Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that are resistant to heat, water, and oil, and traditionally used in consumer products and industrial applications such as food packaging, clothing, fire‐fighting foams, and upholstery.

It has been reported that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels can cause health problems in the liver, kidneys, immune system, and nervous system, and may also cause developmental and reproductive issues such as (low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal changes). Research has suggested links to cancer, thyroid disease, and endocrine disruption.

On June 8th, Massachusetts announced that MassDEP’s Office of Research and Standards (ORS) had established a drinking water guideline for five chemicals that are part of a larger group of PFAS. According to the MassDEP announcement:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a Health Advisory for the sum of two PFAS chemicals – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) at 0.070 micrograms per liter (μg/L) or 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Due to similar health concerns, MassDEP established its guideline to include the following three additional PFAS chemicals: perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA). The ORS Guideline (ORSG) is 70 ppt, and applies to the total summed level of all five compounds. Based on this ORSG, MassDEP recommends the following:

1. Consumers in sensitive subgroups (pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants) not consume water when the level of the five PFAS substances, individually or in combination, is above 70 ppt.

2. Public water suppliers take steps expeditiously to lower levels of the five PFAS, individually or in combination, to below 70 ppt for all consumers.

According to the Massachusetts Drinking Water Regulations [310 CMR 22.03(8)], if MassDEP finds on the basis of a health assessment that the level of any contaminant in drinking water at a Public Water System poses an unacceptable health risk to consumers, the PWS [Public Water Systems] must take actions to achieve safe levels and also to provide public notice. 

Federal Regulation

No federal maximum contaminant level (MCL) has been established for PFAS chemicals in drinking water. However, as mentioned in the MassDEP announcement, the US EPA established a combined public health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water in June of 2016. The third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 3) monitored several PFASs in public water systems (results published in the July 2016 National Contaminant Occurrence Database). PFOA and PFOS were shown to occur in water systems and regulating them presents a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The EPA had added both PFOA and PFOS to the Contaminant Candidate List 3 (CCL3) in 2009 and to the Contaminant Candidate List 4 (CCL4) in November of 2016 for regulatory action.

Other US States have also taken a more stringent approach to PFAS in their drinking water. The table below presents a summary of how the EPA, these other states and now Massachusetts are handling the various PFAS chemicals with similar effects to those by PFOS and PFOA.

USEPA and State Drinking Water Values for PFAS (parts per trillion; ppt)

Health Advisories
70 (Sum of both)
New Jersey
DEP/Drinking Water Institute Proposed MCLs
DPH Drinking Water Action Levels
70 (Sum of all five)
DEP Drinking Water Guidelines
70 (Sum of all five)
DH Drinking Water Guidelines
DH Drinking Water and Groundwater Standards
20 (Sum of both)

Source: MassDEP Office of Research and Standards, June 8, 2018


Public water systems may be able to reduce PFAS chemical concentrations by closing contaminated wells or by blending water sources if allowed. Treatment processes that can remove PFAS chemicals from drinking water may include activated carbon, ion exchange, or high-pressure membrane systems (e.g., reverse osmosis). The more conventional water treatment technologies are not typically effective.

If you have questions about the new MassDEP guidelines for PFAS or want to learn more about the treatment of these chemicals, contact us today.