EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — “Do not drink” notices have been issued for three water systems in Rhode Island due to high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), otherwise known as “forever chemicals.”

A state law passed in 2022 requires that public water systems test for different kinds of PFAS.

According to the R.I. Department of Health (RIDOH), almost everyone has low levels of PFAS in their blood, but studies show a build-up in the body can cause negative health effects such as high cholesterol, a weakened immune system, low infant birth weights and even an increased risk of some cancers.

“There’s really no way to avoid them completely,” said RIDOH’s public information officer, Joseph Wendelken. “They’re in things like the air, dust and soil and drinking water, too.”

If a water system has more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS in their water, it must now issue a “do not drink” order. If a system has more than 20 ppt, it has to issue public advisories and coordinate with the Health Department on how to lower PFAS levels in the water.

“As there’s more PFAS in your water, there’s going to be more health effects potential,” RIDOH toxicologist Mike Byrns said. “With PFAS, it’s not like all of a sudden you get sick, you drink it and you’re going to be sick. It’s increasing your risk of certain diseases incrementally.”

Additionally, when a system tests above 20 ppt, another sample must be taken within 48 hours to confirm the results. (The number released by the Health Department reflects the highest level of PFAS someone could be exposed to, but the water may have lower levels.)

On Tuesday, the Health Department revealed the Ladd Center in Exeter had 334 ppt, Exeter Jobs Corps had 198 ppt, and Bruin Plastics in Glendale had 129 ppt in their water. All three water systems are now under ‘do not drink’ advisories.

More than 20 ppt was detected in eight more water systems:

  • West Glocester Elementary School: 44 ppt
  • Captain Isaac Paine School in Foster: 42 ppt
  • North Smithfield Middle and High Schools: 31 ppt
  • Carousel Industries in Exeter: 55 ppt
  • Wrights Farm in Burrillville: 22 ppt
  • Wood River Health Services in Hope Valley: 28 ppt
  • URI in South Kingstown: 43 ppt

The Coventry Air National Guard also had higher levels of PFAS, according to health officials, but they turned off their well after the samples were taken.

In a statement, Wrights Farm said only their secondary well exceeded 20 ppt, adding that it does not provide water to their restaurant. They said they are working on adding an additional PFAS filtration system to that well also.

URI released a statement to 12 News saying it is “in the process of implementing a series of upgrades to its water system that are designed to reduce PFAS to levels well below the Rhode Island interim drinking water standard.”

The school also pointed out that the ppt level may actually be lower because the campus uses multiple water sources, adding that, “the university continues to work in close collaboration with RIDOH on its remediation efforts.”

Glocester Superintendent Pat Dubois said the district notified the community through email and they’ll be meeting with the Health Department next month to develop a mitigation pan. Students and staff have been told not to use water from any faucet for drinking purposes and bottled water is being used in the cafeteria.

The Paine School said they notified the community on Monday and will provide bottled water until the PFAS levels are lower. They also said they have begun the process of engineering a new well, pump house and water treatment system.

North Smithfield Public Schools sent a notice to the community explaining what PFAS are and outlining the steps being taken. District officials said they’re meeting with the scientists and engineers from the Health Department to come up with a remediation plan.

“We are taking this matter very seriously and are working closely with RIDOH to finalize and get approval for a plan to fix the PFAS levels as soon as possible,” the notice said. “We will share updates with you throughout this process.”

Amy Paramenter, chief administrator at RIDOH’s Center for Drinking water quality, said implementing the treatments may take time.

“All in all, it can take several months, especially for treatment,” she said. “It can take a year.”

Of Rhode Island’s 170 public water systems, 164 have already been sampled. Private wells can also be tested for PFAS.

“Testing is important,” Wendelken said. “If anyone has a concern about drinking water quality and they own a private well, testing their water is something we would recommend.”

Anyone who’s notified about elevated PFAS levels is advised not to drink or boil their water. Boiling water with higher levels of PFAS can actually worsen the problem, according to health officials. Use bottled water instead.

There are also steps people can take to limit PFAS, such as avoiding products advertised as grease-, water- or stain-resistant.