BOSTON — Massachusetts was among the first states to regulate so-called "forever chemicals" in drinking water, and it boasts one of the toughest standards in the nation.
But scientists are increasingly worried that per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances are showing up in tests of food, and lawmakers are ramping up efforts to study the extent of the contamination in the Bay State.
The effort follows recent reports by federal health officials showing the toxic chemicals in everything from fruits and vegetables to chocolate cake and baby formulas.
A bill heard by the Legislature's Committee on Natural Resources on Tuesday would require the state to hire a consultant to study PFAS in agricultural products such as pesticides, feed and fertilizer, food products and packaging.
"PFAS are a serious public health threat to the commonwealth," said Rep. Susan Moran, D-Falmouth, who has filed another bill that would classify PFAS compounds as toxic and hazardous.
A bipartisan proposal, now pending before the Committee on Public Health, would ban PFAS in food packaging. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, is among two-dozen lawmakers who’ve signed onto the proposal.
The state Department of Environmental Protection requires drinking water systems to test for PFAS, under rules that went into effect this year. The state requires water systems to remove the contamination if tests for six types of PFAS chemicals exceed concentrations of 20 parts per trillion.
More than two-dozen communities have water systems that exceed those levels and are working with environmental regulators to remove the contamination, the state agency said.
But activists say the state needs to pay more attention to PFAS in food, which is the other way that humans and animals ingest the chemicals.
"We have no idea what the PFAS content of our food is," said Kristen Mello, a Westfield chemist and activist who supports the proposals.
"They have found PFAS in milk, eggs, chocolate cake and even oysters,” she told the panel.
PFAS are dubbed "forever chemicals" because they can accumulate in the body and take decades to degrade. Over the years they’ve been used in a range of products from rain coats and firefighting foam to couches and nonstick pans.
Research points to links between PFAS and kidney cancer, high cholesterol and pregnancy complications.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported last year that research had detected PFAS in a variety of foods, including produce, meats and seafood.
Last week, a group of environmental and public health groups asked the FDA to ban the chemicals in food processing.
"The cumulative effect of PFAS from all these sources on our health — including our risk of cancer, harm to our immune system and impaired development of our children — has resulted in a national outcry for comprehensive action," the groups wrote. "States have been compelled to take action because the federal government’s piecemeal approach has left residents at risk."
The petitioners pointed out that the extent of food contamination from PFAS compounds is "largely unknown because the agency does not test for them."
Several states, including Maine, Washington and New York, have passed laws banning the use of PFAS in food packaging and requiring product testing.
Meanwhile, a number of food companies, including McDonald's, Wendy's and the Whole Foods supermarket chain, have pledged to stop using PFAS in packaging.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org