By Maclaine Willett, Assistant News Editor
In the midst of the many conflicts of the present times, a new issue has arisen within the Nantucket community concerning the health of community members. Recently, the discovery of PFAS, (poly-fluoroalkyl substances), was confirmed in the water provided and circulated near the Nantucket Memorial Airport. This man-made chemical is used in objects like cookware and food packaging, and in this specific case, the flame-retardant foam used in fire drills at the airport. If consumed in large amounts, it can be detrimental to one’s health. Although PFAS could carry negative effects, many companies continue to use it due to the fact that it is efficient and cheap in regards to certain products. For example, the reason why those fancy, non-stick pans make it so cooking spray isn’t needed is the usage of this dangerous chemical. Similar to those products, the chemical is effective when used in firefighting training, and this seems to be the reason for the contamination on Nantucket.
The origin of this PFAS contamination stems from the flame-retardant foam that the airport uses during firefighting training. In the spring and early summer, the discovery of the chemical in large amounts within this foam was apparent, and it began to concern those who were testing the samples. In early July, an environmental research company known as Weston Solutions was brought to the island in order to test the wells at the airport. In total, they tested four wells, and three came back positive for containing PFAS. Some, as the research determined, contained over the threshold that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) named to be safe for consumption. The threshold, as the DEP has stated, is anything above 20 parts per trillion would be a health concern.
The issue of contamination does not just concern the Nantucket Memorial Airport; it is also an issue regarding those living in close proximity of the airport, using the wells that share the water. Shortly after the airport wells were tested, around 12 residential wells were tested, and 8 results came back with traces of PFAS in the water supply. The number of homes that have been tested isn’t completely clear to the public, but the homes in close proximity to the Nantucket Memorial Airport are steering clear of using the water from the wells. As an alternative, the airport has been providing these homes with bottled water, coming in bulks of bottles by the gallon. It is unknown when the wells will be free of contamination and ready for usage again, and the extent of the potential health risks to the local community are currently unknown.
As for the rest of the island’s water supply, this does not seem to pose a threat. Mark Willett, hydrogeologist and Director of the Wannacomet Water Company, states, “because of the configuration of our aquifer with confining units which separate the layers of water,” the contamination will not affect the rest of the water supply treated by the town. This configuration of the aquifer ensures that the layers of water between the separate wells are not in close contact, therefore preventing further contamination. But, this does not mean that the Wannacomet Water Company will not aid the airport.” Willett states that the company has been assisting the airport “since day one, and will continue to do so until the problem is resolved.”
Along with Weston Solutions, they are working to determine the extent of contamination within the wells to establish the areas that have been contaminated. Following the findings regarding the extent of contamination, the many people working to solve this issue will collaborate to begin the process of groundwater cleanup and the development of treatment systems. As it seems, the process of decontamination is extensive and may take some time in order to be sure that the water is no longer carrying this deadly and dangerous chemical in ample amounts. But, the steps of the process are in place, and those working to solve the problem seem to have the knowledge and resources to do so.
PFAS, a chemical seen in other things like waterproof clothing, makeup, waxes, and soaps, seems to be one that people can’t escape. As Willett says, PFAS is in “almost everything.” So, the usage of this chemical will continue to pose a threat to the health of the public when it is seen in household products and a flame-retardant foam necessary for firefighting training. The Nantucket Memorial Airport is not the only airport that has reported traces of PFAS within this foam, many around the country have reported similar findings.