On Friday, Massachusetts put forth new rules to regulate so-called "forever chemicals," putting the commonwealth ahead of the federal government, which has no such regulations. Now, communities across the state are thinking through how to comply and what it might cost.

"Forever chemicals" are man-made chemicals that never fully break down and can be found in everything from pizza boxes to dental floss and camping gear to firefighting foams. These chemicals are called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

They are common because they are good at repelling water, grease and stains. However, researchers are finding they are dangerous for people's health, causing issues for the immune system, the thyroid, the kidney and the liver — to name a few. Testing suggests PFAS chemicals are increasingly being found in our water and soil.

"Drinking water standards typically are set by the federal government,” said Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). However, he said, when it comes to PFAS, the federal government has only issued an advisory, which is not legally enforceable.

“We felt it was important to move ahead here in the commonwealth," he said.

Massachusetts has done two things to protect the state’s water supplies from PFAS. First, MassDEP finalized rulesthat require polluters to pay when they have caused PFAS to get into the soil and groundwater. Those rules go into effect at the end of 2019.

Second, MassDEP put out draft rulesthat will govern public drinking water systems. Joining states like Vermont and New Hampshire, Massachusetts is slated to start testing drinking water for PFAS in mid-2020. A comment period on the proposed rules will last between Dec. 27, 2019 and Feb. 28, 2020.

Both rules require that six common PFAS chemicals are, collectively, below a threshold of 20 parts per trillion. If tests suggest the PFAS level is higher than the threshold, the municipalities or the companies must do something to fix the situation.

"These rules are good news for public health in Massachusetts," said Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Campbell's nonprofit filed the original petition that prompted the state to start the process of establishing PFAS standards in October 2018. “The administration responded in a very timely way and in a very substantive way,” he said.

"It's a great step forward compared to what we had, which was nothing," said Elsie Sunderland, a professor at Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Science and in the School of Public Health.

The state is only measuring six chemicals in a class of more than 4,700 PFAS chemicals. Sunderland said the next thing she would like to see the state use is a Total Organofluorine Screening Standard, which would test for all the "forever chemicals."

"It's actually a much easier measurement than measuring individual PFAS," said Sunderland.

But, she said, industry argues you can't distinguish between the different chemicals and some are worse than others. However, all seem to have adverse health impacts.

Sunderland said the technology used to perform this test is still new and tools are scarce in the US. "We have one of these instruments in my lab. I think there's maybe one other group in the country right now," she said.

The key, Sunderland said, is that as the research progresses, the regulations keep pace. MassDEP agreed, saying that they'll have to keep updating. And, long term, activists hope the whole class of chemical will be phased out.

In the meantime, some municipalities in Massachusetts are wondering exactly what these proposed drinking water rule will mean for them. MassDEP said of 37 municipalities that provided data to them, 28 detected some level of PFAS and 12 of them had amounts that exceeded the proposed standards.

The town of Danvers, which provides water for itself and neighboring Middleton, has had issues with PFAS in its water supply. Steve Bartha, the town manager, said he has questions about the proposed regulations. He wants to know if, under the proposed regulations, the water will be tested for PFAS when it comes out of the ground or when it is fully treated and about to head to customers.

"We've asked the question, and we haven't gotten an answer yet," he said.

This is particularly important to him because the town has two wells that were taken offline earlier this year when concerning levels of PFAS were found. However, Bartha said, once that well water is mixed with a lot more water from their reservoir, the levels of PFAS are far below the newly proposed limit.

That means where the water is tested — at the well, or once it is mixed with reservoir water — will determine if they need to address the PFAS problem in the wells.

"It will matter a great deal to our water system and, I suspect, most water systems," Bartha said. A spokesperson for the state said it depends a bit on the specific situation but, in general, the finished water will be tested.

If Danvers does have to solve the PFAS levels in their wells, Bartha said, that could be expensive. Some solutions the town has seen have been in the millions and, he said, they already pay a lot to maintain pipes that are 100 years old.

"The capital plans that were developed two or three years ago did not include significant equipment upgrades to handle this. So, we're going to need some help," he said.

Bartha said he is appreciative that the Baker administration put $24 million aside to help fund water infrastructure, but he worries “that may end up being a very small percentage of the ultimate fix.”

The cost of testing and treating for PFAS, Bartha said, could end up being passed on to consumers in their water bills.