Maryland or Massachusetts: Who’s Better at PFAS Regulation?

Last year while taking a class at MIT on water, health, and the environment, I produced a water vulnerability map of Massachusetts along with my group. We looked at such variables as sole source aquifers, hurricane inundation zones, superfund sites, social vulnerability, and military bases. Using these factors, we identified six municipalities that were considered the most vulnerable.

Shocking and unknown to me, PFAS were found in the water at Wellesley College. In May and July 2021, Wellesley conducted its first tests for six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in its campus drinking water wells. The MassDEP standard requires that the maximum contaminant level (MCL) should not exceed twenty parts per thousand (20 ppt). Wellesley’s wells tested just below that level at 19.89 ppt. Since the levels were close to the state mandates, Wellesley College switched to the town of Wellesley’s water source and began the process of integrating a filtration system so that the well water would be safe for students.

The project at MIT and the PFAS levels at Wellesley College sparked my curiosity. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to adverse health outcomes including “altered metabolism, fertility, reduced fetal growth and increased risk of being overweight or obese, increased risk of some cancers, and reduced ability of the immune system to fight infections.” While doing research into PFAS, I discovered that households with private wells are among the most susceptible to unhealthy levels of PFAS since there is no required regulation. With PFAS testing being expensive, this is also a financial burden for many people who have personal wells. Further, if the PFAS levels are high, it could mean that the house will drop in value, or that the residents will have to spend large amounts of money to install filtration systems. My own family has a private well and I sometimes wonder if I have been affected by PFAS as almost a decade ago I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Given how altered metabolism can affect the body, I wish in upon no one. Furthermore, my entire family has faced numerous health crises, and I wonder if exposure to PFAS might be the reason.

Such curiosity led me to extend my research into PFAS in my home state of Maryland. I first found that PFAS are not nearly as well studied in Maryland, especially my rural county, as they are in Massachusetts. This lack of research leads to real differences in programs to support communities who want to know more about their PFAS levels. For example, while Massachusetts has the Interim PFAS6 Response Program, PFAS Treatment Grant, and the Small System PFAS Grant Program, I cannot find any similar programs in Maryland. However, it was announced in 2023 that $18,914,000 from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will go to Maryland to address emerging contaminants, such as PFAS in drinking water.

With the research that did occur, two towns in my county in Maryland were tested for more than 70 ppt of PFAS in their water systems in 2020. That’s over triple the state limit set in Massachusetts. These towns also tested higher than any other municipality in Maryland with their levels higher than the EPA Lifetime Health Advisory. While my own college located in the suburbs of Boston found levels that were nearly 20 ppt and implemented an entire water filtration system to reduce levels, Carroll County has found levels far higher than that. When these levels were found, the affected water treatment plants were put offline, more research was conducted, and public notices were issued. But it remains a concern that these may not be the only two towns in Carroll County affected by extreme levels of PFAS.

Concerned, I contacted my congressional representative to see how PFAS are being addressed at the federal level. But the response I received did not inspire much confidence. I then reached out to my own municipality in Maryland, but as of this writing, have received no response.

Attending college in Massachusetts while coming from a rural county in Maryland allows me to see first-hand the disparity in exposures between the two, and how this affects the awareness and preparedness of communities facing potential contamination. It emphasizes the importance for comprehensive and proactive measures to protect public health, that everyone needs to be included so that no one gets left behind.

Suzanna Schofield — RCC National Environmental Leadership Fellow – Wellesley College

RCC Fellow Suzanna Schofield is a senior at Wellesley College, double majoring in Environmental Studies and Peace and Justice Studies with concentrations in water conservation, sustainable community development, and public health. In addition to the Rachel Carson Council, her efforts include involvement and leadership in EnAct, the environmental student organization at Wellesley, Fridays For Future Wellesley, the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, World Water Hub, Inland Ocean Coalition, Amboseli Wildlife and Communities, and more.