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Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances From Firefighting and Domestic Wastewater Remain in Groundwater for Decades

USGS scientist collecting groundwater samples
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist collecting groundwater samples for analysis of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) from a multiport monitoring well downgradient from a former fire-training area on western Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Denis R. LeBlanc, USGS.

New study explores the persistence and transport of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) that originated from both firefighting and domestic wastewater sources. Although the fire training area and wastewater facility were decommissioned over 20 years ago, both sites continue to be sources of PFASs to groundwater.

Contamination of groundwater resources by organic and inorganic chemicals is an issue of national importance because groundwater sources provide drinking water supplies for millions of people in the United States. Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are commonly present in the environment because of their widespread use in consumer and industrial applications, such as protective coatings, and as a major component in aqueous film-forming foams. PFASs are widespread groundwater contaminants because they are highly mobile and resistant to microbial and chemical degradation once released into the environment. Understanding how PFASs get into groundwater and how they move in the subsurface is important for understanding human exposure through drinking water consumption.

To address this need, a study was done at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Cape Cod Toxic Substances Hydrology research site on western Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to provide a field-based approach to understand the persistence and transport of PFASs from two independent sources. The sources included a fire training area where foams were used to extinguish fuel fires and infiltration beds where secondarily treated domestic wastewater was applied. A total of 148 groundwater samples and 4 sediment cores were collected from multiple locations along a 1,200-meter-long transect oriented in the direction of the groundwater flow at the study site. Samples were analyzed for a mixture of PFASs by using liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry.

Aerial photograph of an area on Cape Cod, MA, with labels showing key features
View northward of the fire-training area, wastewater-infiltration beds, USGS tracer-test site, and Ashumet Pond on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The airfield and cantonment area of Joint Base Cape Cod are visible at the top of the photograph. Photo Credit: Denis R. LeBlanc, USGS.

The relative contribution of the two independent PFAS sources was characterized by using state-of-the-science analytical measurements and visualization techniques to examine the PFAS distributions in the complex, overlapping groundwater contamination plumes. Although the fire training area was decommissioned about 30 years ago (1985) and remediated in 1997, and the wastewater facility was decommissioned about 20 years ago (1995), both sites continue to be sources of PFASs to the groundwater.

This research provides techniques to characterize the fate and transport of the PFASs in plumes emanating from two different types of sources that are widely distributed on the landscape. PFASs have been reported to have a variety of adverse health outcomes, leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue lifetime drinking water health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Understanding the fate and transport of PFASs in groundwater allows water resource and public health managers to identify the risk and minimize exposures of populations to toxic contaminants.

Funding for this joint USGS and Harvard University study was provided by the USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, the Massachusetts Water Resources Research Center (11 006501 H 01), the William F. Milton Fund, the Harvard Graduate Consortium on Energy and Environment , the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences TomKat Fund, and the Harvard National Institute of Environmental Health Science Center Grant (P30ES000002).


Weber, A.K., Barber, L.B., LeBlanc, D.R., Sunderland, E.M., and Vecitis, C.D., 2017, Geochemical and hydrologic factors controlling subsurface transport of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, Cape Cod, Massachusetts: Environmental Science and Technology, doi:10.1021/acs.est.6b05573.

Barber, L.B., Weber, A.K., LeBlanc, D.R., Hull, R.B., Sunderland, E.M., and Vecitis, C.D., 2017, Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances in contaminated groundwater, cape cod, Massachusetts, 2014-2015 (ver. 1.1, March 2017): U.S. Geological Survey Data Release, doi:10.5066/F7Z899KT

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