Report Cites Trace Chemicals in Massachusetts Drinking Water

Drinking water tests in almost 100 Massachusetts communities found at least trace amounts of contaminants that had long escaped detection because they are unregulated, according to a new report by the advocacy group Clean Water Action.

Dec. 16—Drinking water tests in almost 100 Massachusetts communities found at least trace amounts of contaminants that had long escaped detection because they are unregulated, according to a new report by the advocacy group Clean Water Action.

The report, based on state test results for the three chemicals from 2001 to 2004, found that samples from 86 communities' drinking water supplies had tiny but detectable levels of MtBE, a gasoline additive that is designated a carcinogen in California. Low levels of DCPA, an herbicide used on crops such as strawberries, melons, and cucumbers, were found in samples from 17 water supplies. The testing also indicated that nine Massachusetts communities now have perchlorate, a chemical used in explosives that can cause thyroid problems, in their water.

All three chemicals are on the federal list of "monitored" substances, which means they are being watched as possible health risks, but no safety levels have been established and testing is not required of every public water supply.

The report, scheduled for release today, comes on the 30th anniversary of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, a groundbreaking law that eventually set the current national health standards for almost 100 contaminants in drinking water. The report was released to highlight the fact that standards have never been set on many other substances that scientists believe to be harmful.

Massachusetts monitors far more communities for contaminants than required by federal rules, and state officials say they are working to develop safety standards for perchlorate and other such substances.

The issue of unregulated contaminants has come to a head in Massachusetts during the last two years, since the contaminant perchlorate was found on the Massachusetts Military Reservation. When the state then started testing communities for perchlorate, samples from eight more drinking supplies tested positive for the chemical, including in Boxborough, Williamstown, Westport, Millbury and Tewksbury. The state has proposed a public health guideline of 1 part per billion in drinking water, which would be by far the strictest in the country.

Officials at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, praised in the report for their response to perchlorate contamination, said they try to respond quickly to threats to water supplies and alert the public as soon as there is any problem. For example, a recent flurry of tests for MtBE was triggered when tests at a gas station that served food showed that the water supply was contaminated with the chemical.

"We try to be responsive and nimble," said Arlene O'Donnell, deputy commissioner for the state DEP. She said the state tests for 24 more contaminants in drinking water than the EPA requires.

At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency has a list of more than two dozen chemicals that it monitors for possible health hazards but has not regulated. For MtBE, for instance, the EPA suggests that concentrations of 20 to 40 parts per billion or less would avoid unpleasant taste and odor. In four of the communities tested in Massachusetts — Avon, Brimfield, Cotuit, and Tyngsborough — at least one sample showed an MtBE level above 20 parts per billion, the report notes. Massachusetts, meanwhile, has a state guideline of 70 parts per billion. California's health standard is 13 parts per billion.

The report noted that there are many more toxic chemicals that are not even monitored, such as some flame retardants and chemicals from nonstick coatings that are believed by some to cause health problems. The report said the EPA needs to come up with safety standards for more chemicals. EPA officials yesterday acknowledged it can take years for such standards to be established.

"We need to look 1/8harder3/8 for contaminants that no one is testing for," said Mike Davis, drinking water advocate for Clean Water Action. He said both the US Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection lack adequate programs to prevent new or unregulated contaminants from entering water supplies from nearby industries or agriculture.

"You can't test for everything under the sun," said Davis. "But you can target what is used in your area and look at it. Maybe there isn't a farm, but there are lots of dry cleaners. The bottom line is we need to stop using these poison chemicals in our water supply areas."

In Westford, where perchlorate levels have been high, town officials are working to ensure it doesn't enter their drinking water supply again. The town is looking at potential sources of percholrate, such as blasting material used to clear areas for new homes. Officials are discussing developing a regulation to prohibit use of the chemical near water supplies.

Said Sandy Collins, director of health care services for Westford: "There are so many chemicals out there, we are just finding out the impact of so many of them."

To see more of The Boston Globe, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

© 2004, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.