Grappling with Competing Interpretations of an Uncertain Science

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

Risk communication is a critical step in addressing contaminants of emerging concern, especially for high-profile compounds like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

On October 2, 2020, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) amended Massachusetts Drinking Water Regulations and established a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 0.000020 milligrams per liter (mg/l) or 20 ng/l (also called parts per trillion or ppt) for the sum of six PFAS compounds (PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS, PFNA, PFHpA and PFDA), known as PFAS6. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a lifetime health advisory (HA) of 70 ng/L for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), individually or combined.

PFAS have garnered a great deal of public attention—and instilled some fear within communities, who are in some cases only learning about their exposure now. Risk perception for PFAS is challenging to address because the science is rapidly evolving, the exposure is seen as involuntary, the risk management strategies are a moving target, and there are the differences between the EPA’s health advisor and the Massachusetts DEP’s amended regulations.

Public drinking water suppliers have a monumental challenge ahead. Not only do they have to provide a short-term solution to provide their community members with safe drinking water, they also have the challenge of responding to a flood of inquiries - no pun intended, and have to come up with plan for a long-term solution all while emerging from a pandemic, where communities and consumers are both in delicate financial situations.They also have to address the risk intensification challenges, and build trust among community members by providing information in a transparent and timely manner.

Risk communication is a critical step in addressing emerging contaminants, especially for high-profile compounds like PFAS. There are differences in the messaging and methods by which different agencies, municipalities and organizations share information with their audiences. Given the breadth of regulatory efforts, sampling strategies, and general involvement with PFAS, it is important to communicate the best practices to help effectively and efficiently address contamination.

Our team is currently working with the Town of Easton, Department of Public Works providing public outreach services regarding the quality of water in Easton and addressing community member’s concerns regarding the elevated levels of PFAS6 in their drinking supply. We are also working with a number of communities in Massachusetts assisting them with their public outreach for water quality issues, water conservation, stormwater pollution, infrastructure improvements, as well as water crisis communications strategies.

"PFAS is an evolving issue. The new, more stringent PFAS limits recently put into place by MassDEP are designed to ensure Massachusetts water supplies are safe, and what is most important is that we make certain Easton's water supply meets those targets. The Town started testing for PFAS almost a year before any MassDEP regulations became a reality, and this was because we felt it was an important component to monitor within the Town water supply. That proactive approach continues today as we work towards addressing the contaminants in question,’’ said David Field, Easton DPW Director. “We have been working with Capital Strategic Solutions to keep the public informed as we work with local and state officials to develop, design, and implement the most prudent solution for our community. Nichol and Mike have been assisting our Water Division by responding to the concerns of our community, which has allowed us to focus on our next steps.”

Capital Strategic Solutions will collaborate with your team to develop a core of PFAS risk communication resources for your community. The material we create will help you easily collaborate and disseminate audience-appropriate information on chemicals of emerging concern. If you are interested in these types of services and/or learning more about what we do, please contact or call 508-690-0046.

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