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How much PFAS is coming through the pipes of Cape Cod's only jail? We tested the water to find out.

A typical cell at the Barnstable County jail has two bunks, a writing surface with seat, a toilet and a sink.
Jennette Barnes
/
CAI
A typical cell at the Barnstable County jail has two bunks, a writing surface with seat, a toilet and a sink.

Results are back for drinking water in the Barnstable County Correctional Facility, a jail located within the bounds of Joint Base Cape Cod. CAI’s environment team specifically searched for whether PFAS – or “forever chemicals” – were coming through the pipes to incarcerated people.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Patrick Flanary: Tell us more about what you were looking for, and what you found?

Eve Zuckoff: I went looking for PFAS chemicals because they’re increasingly a health concern. They don’t break down in our bodies. In fact, they accumulate over time, and have been linked to fertility issues, liver damage, thyroid disease, immune system disorders, cancer, etc.

So what did we find? The tests actually didn’t detect PFAS chemicals — at least not at high enough levels to register. Now, CAI didn’t go looking for every PFAS chemical ever made. There are about 14,000 of them, but we went looking for 18 of the most prevalent types of PFAS that manufacturers put in so many of our daily products to make them oil-, water-, and stain-resistant. That includes rugs, pans, rain jackets, dental floss, makeup and guitar strings, and so much more.

Read the full drinking water report here:

Patrick Flanary: Let’s talk about the process to test the water. You collected samples, and then sent them to a lab.

Eve Zuckoff: Exactly. I think it’s important to be really transparent about the process: I connected with a lab called Nashoba Analytical in Ayer, Massachusetts, on the recommendation of a leading PFAS expert. But it wasn’t cheap; it cost almost $550. So the Pulitzer Center — known for their big journalism prize — gave me a grant to cover it.

Around the same time, officials from the sheriff’s office agreed to give me access to the jail, where I interviewed an incarcerated man named Mark Sinawski who first asked me to look into drinking water.

“Just because they say it's safe,” he said, “doesn't mean it's safe."

So I went to a bathroom in the jail, filled up special containers, drove them 100 miles northwest to Ayer to drop them off in person at the lab, and I got the results back a few weeks later.

Later, when I informed the sheriff’s office, Sheriff Donna Buckley said in a statement that she was “pleased but not surprised.”

Mark Sinawski, who's been incarcerated at Barnstable County Correctional Facility for 30 months awaiting trial, has read about PFAS contamination in local papers and said he's been concerned about the drinking water.
Eve Zuckoff
Mark Sinawski, who's been incarcerated at Barnstable County Correctional Facility for 30 months awaiting trial, has read about PFAS contamination in local papers and said he's been concerned about the drinking water.

Patrick Flanary: So there was virtually zero PFAS detected in the water at Barnstable County’s Jail. How does that compare to the PFAS in drinking water across the rest of the region?

Eve Zuckoff: The amount of detectable PFAS varies town by town, even neighborhood by neighborhood. For example, Mashpee has three wells where PFAS chemicals have been found, and four wells where no PFAS has been found. But overall, it is true that local communities have, over the last decade or so, been finding more and more of these chemicals.

In one study by Silent Spring Institute, researchers found that between 2013 and 2015 Hyannis residents had higher levels of PFAS in their blood than 99% of other Americans.

Now, to be clear, Hyannis has been working hard to make drinking water safe and clean since then. But we have this history of major PFAS contamination from firefighting foam that was used in training exercises across the Cape, both on JBCC and at firefighting academies. (There are other sources, too, like leaky septic systems).

And the thing about the Cape is that rain and melting snow carry chemicals through soil and down into the aquifer that serves most of us our drinking water. The Cape's sandy soil allows the chemicals to spread more quickly.

Patrick Flanary: Barnstable County’s Jail isn’t far at all from sites on Joint Base Cape Cod with known PFAS contamination. So how do you explain why there were no chemicals detected in the jail’s drinking water?

Eve Zuckoff: The jail gets its drinking water from the Upper Cape Regional Water Supply Cooperative, which also counts Falmouth, Mashpee, Sandwich, and Bourne as water customers. The Cooperative is pulling water from three wells on JBCC that have been tested for PFAS — and it’s not detected.

But why not? A good question, since the wells are so near contamination sites.

A big part of the answer has to do with geology. If you imagine the earth beneath your feet right now, it’s almost like there’s a sponge: pressure and gravity move water downward and sideways underground through spaces between rocks. Laurel Schaider, a researcher at Silent Spring Institute, says PFAS chemicals like to stick together in the ground and move as a group that’s called a plume.

"The plumes from Joint Base follow certain kinds of lines going from higher to lower elevations of the groundwater in ways that can kind of be predicted and modeled,” she said. “So it doesn't all get mixed around in the same way that it might in a lake.”

If a lake was contaminated with chemicals on one side of it, wind and other factors would ultimately bring the chemicals across the water body and contaminate the whole thing, but groundwater is a different animal.

A map shows where plumes are on Joint Base Cape Cod.
Massachusetts National Guard
A map shows where plumes are on Joint Base Cape Cod.

Patrick Flanary: For this story, you looked at the jail. But if other people are concerned about their drinking water, what should they do?

Eve Zuckoff: There’s good news and bad news here. First the good: especially for people with town water, towns are testing for PFAS and they’re legally obligated to treat it if it’s found. In Mashpee, Andy Marks explained the treatment system for water that has PFAS in it.

“The water goes through two filters,” he said. “Every 90 days we sample between the two filters to see if any of PFAS got through the first filter, and then we sample after the second filter.”

So that’s the good news – people like Andy Marks exist.

The bad news is filters are only put in after PFAS is identified. So some people could be falling through the cracks of this reactionary, rather than preemptive system. Locals — especially those on private wells — may want to find a lab to get tests done.

But this is a real equity issue: how does someone with limited income, or who works full time, or who’s paid by the hour, or has children, have the time and money to go find and work with a reputable lab? Most people don’t have $550 laying around to secure the right to clean water.

Patrick Flanary: You shouldn’t have to worry about it, right?

Eve Zuckoff: No! And this is something that needs to be addressed as most water suppliers throughout the country are increasingly finding PFAS in what’s coming out the tap.

Patrick Flanary: Eve Zuckoff testing the waters, quite literally, on Cape Cod for us. Eve, thanks for joining us on Morning Edition.

Eve Zuckoff: Thank you, Patrick.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
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