URI Scientists to Study Cape Well Water for Possible Contaminants

May 29, 2018

Credit University of Rhode Island Superfund Program STEEP

Scientists at the University of Rhode Island are coming to the Cape to see if there are contaminants in drinking water. They're looking for residents to volunteer to have their private wells tested for compounds called PFOA.

The chemicals are found in firefighting foam and household products and are included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of chemicals of emerging concern. That's because there's some evidence that those compounds cause problems ranging from cancer to developmental issues in children.

The researchers are going to test a wide range of areas on the Cape starting this summer, and they're trying to find out where the contaminants might be coming from. WCAI's Hayley Fager spoke with Rainer Lohmann, director of the Superfund Research Center steep at the University of Rhode Island. STEEP stands for sources transport exposure and effects of PFOAs. I asked him why they're starting this research on the Cape.

Lohmann: Ideally, we want to use the Cape as a test site for which we can learn about the transfer of these compounds in the ground, which compounds get retarded as respect to the amount of sediment in the ground, and which travel further if there's change over time. So, to some degree it will help us improve our understanding of what happens to these compounds below ground.

If an outcome is that we find a well with a contaminant, of course we will make sure that anybody in that in that vicinity is sure to either install filters or switch to a different water supply. So, of course we make sure that the people we're testing with are safe.

Fager: How does this research relate to the national conversation around PFO ways and drinking water contamination?

Lohmann: Cape is one of, unfortunately, too many communities that are affected. I think what we're now building on is a serious question whether the EPA's current guideline values are stringent enough. Several states in the U.S. have found nd their own water quality criteria is stricter than what the EPA has. So, that's going to be an interesting discussion. Hopefully the evidence will convince EPA to reconsider and hopefully that will help protect more people from exposure.

Fager: What do residents need to know, and how can they sign up?

Lohmann: We have a website where you can look at it and say, "I would like to have my water tested". Then we'll make our semi-randomized selection of those--we'd like to have a good geographical spread.

Fager: And what if contaminants are found--are there any resources available for residents that might have to deal with that?

Lohmann: We will report the results back, but because we are not regulatory so we can only suggest that this might be something we should do something about. The sad part is that it need the pressure from communities up to make sure that EPA does the best to protect the public. I think there's concerns that EPA needs public pressure to act in that capacity and hopefully the communities with them will help decision-makers to make the right moves at the federal level.

To learn more about the program, go to uri.edu/steep.

*This transcript was edited lightly for grammar and clarity.