Residents in Westfield can safely drink their water without wondering what’s in it. That’s what city officials say and according to newly released testing results, the water is well below any of United States Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory levels.
However, some residents still have fear and wonder about the water, which may have been contaminated for decades.
“We just feel it’s our right to know and be able to have that information,” said Gail Bean, a lifetime resident of Westfield.
Bean grew up on the northern side of the city, then raised three children there and worked at Western Massachusetts Hospital, just down the road.
“I pretty much have been drinking this for my entire life, 24/7,” said Bean. “Not only did I live in this part of town. I worked at the hospital down the road and made tea and coffee. I pretty much never got away from it.”
It turns out that during firefighting training at Barnes Air National Guard Base, they used foam that contained two contaminants, PFOA and PFOS. These contaminants are found in a large number of consumer products from cleaning materials to clothing and furniture. They can work their way into the environment and most people have been exposed to them.
Wells #7 and #8 are located about a mile from Barnes and, for many years, supplied water for residents living on the north side of the city.
However, in the early 2000s, the chemicals were phased out of production due to questions about health implications. Studies show that at higher levels of exposure, PFOA and PFOS may be related to an array of adverse health effects including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, cancer, liver tissue damage, immune effects, thyroid conditions and cholesterol changes.
“My children at young ages they would have blood tests for cholesterol and their cholesterol was high,” said Bean. “I’m like, what’s going on?”
In May 2016 the U.S. EPA issued a new lifetime health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS to 70 parts per trillion. Two of Westfield’s wells, #7 and #8, exceeded that new limit and were taken offline.
Then, in September 2016, a Drinking Water Health Advisory was released to residents, informing them that now Well #2 would be taken offline due to high levels of PFOA and PFOS.
The notice specifically warned pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants to avoid drinking city water and instead to drink bottled water. This began to raise concerns who had been living in Westfield for decades, nursing and feeding their infants.
“I have three sons,” said Bean. “I made formula, made Kool-Aid back in the day and drank the water.”
Bean told Western Mass News she has wondered and worried about how PFOA and PFOS may have affected her family’s health over time. That is why she wants to know more.
“Knowledge is power,” she said.
However, when the city turned off those wells in early 2016, it turned out to have even more repercussions for the city, when the drought hit that spring.
In November 2016, the city took its main source of water, the Granville Reservoir, offline because of historically low water levels. This caused low water pressure throughout the city, which then forced Westfield State University to send its students home early for Thanksgiving.
By December 2016, water pressure issues remained.
Then in April 2017, the city and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection initiated sampling of private wells that sit near Barnes.
And in the first week of November 2017, the city released its most recent testing results of Wells #1 and #2, showing that the levels of PFOA and PFOS are well below the EPA’s advisory level. But wells #7 and #8 remain offline.
“I understand their concerns and the want of information,” said Mayor Brian Sullivan, who adds that he has lived in Westfield for more than 50 years. “Unfortunately, we can only get as much information as we have so it’s gonna be a work in progress as more information comes forward.”
Mayor Sullivan said the investigation is a long process, so Western Mass News asked MassDEP, just how long?
A spokesperson responded: “The City of Westfield’s Well #7 and Well #8 remain turned off. The city has submitted a permit application for a treatment system for those wells. MassDEP is presently reviewing that permit application.”
Also, a spokesperson for the EPA told Western Mass News they are aware of the issues, but that MassDEP is leading the investigation.
“I turn to the experts,” said Mayor Sullivan.
But after more than a year of knowing about decades-long contamination, residents want to know the long-term health effects they may have because of water contamination.
“As a resident I think we have a right to have our blood tested if we want it done,” said Bean. “It’s a simple thing to ask for.”
Residents such as Bean told Western Mass News they want city officials and MassDEP to sign off on voluntary blood testing for residents who live or have lived on the north side of the city, near wells #7 and #8. But Mayor Sullivan said the next step is getting that filtration system, and then to request financial assistance.
More than 100 residents have signed a petition calling for blood testing, which is costly. For more on that petition, you can CLICK HERE.
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