A large silver tank sits in the front of Cherry Brook Primary School in Canton. In it are gallons of clean, filtered water that pump into the school’s fountains, sinks and water bottle filling stations.
It’s been a fixture on school grounds since Nov. 6 when town officials notified parents that Cherry Brook’s well water could be contaminated with PFAS, a family of man-made chemicals that may be toxic to humans. That contamination is thought to have occurred after firefighting foam was used at the school five years ago.
And now parents want to know how this may have affected their children.
“I have several questions. I’ve had several questions for about the past week,” said Mike Pendall, who has a child at the school.
Town and state officials hosted a community meeting Wednesday night at the school to address parents’ concerns about PFAS, the subject of increasing regional and national focus as chemicals from substances like firefighting foam and industrial products build up in the environment.
Bob Skinner, Canton chief administrative officer, said that though the incident at Cherry Brook happened years ago, it only came to light at an Oct. 30 meeting of the volunteer fire department. Chief Bruce Lockwood, who has led the department for the past two years, and emergency responders discussed ways to limit the scope and use of firefighting foam.
“It was at that time one of the firefighters there at the meeting spoke to Chief Lockwood and said that he believed the foam had been used here at a training meeting back several years earlier,” Skinner said.
Town officials found out that firefighters sprayed about 40 gallons of concentrated foam mixed with about 1,300 gallons of water on school grounds during a training exercise in October 2014. It occurred about 250 feet from two private wells that supply the school’s water.
PFAS chemicals, which are also found in stain-resistant products, nonstick cookware and food packaging, can remain in the environment for long periods. That’s why they pose a risk to humans, said Jennifer Kertanis, director of health for the Farmington Valley Health District.
“The most sensitive endpoint centers around developmental effects, birth weight of a baby, fetal growth, potential impacts on our immune system,” she said. “And at higher levels, there appears to be some association between an increased risk in liver and testicular cancers.”
Eastern Water Solutions, based in Oxford, operates the school’s water system. Representatives collected samples from the wells Monday and have submitted them to a laboratory for testing, but town officials said it could take up to four weeks before they get results.
The town plans to collect and test soil samples to ensure that the grounds don’t continue to be a source for contaminants.
Until the results are known, Kertanis said they can’t determine the possible impacts on current and former students and staff, if there were any at all.
“So we’re just here for a bunch of what-ifs, basically, right?” asked Brendan Perkins, a parent at the community meeting. “It just seems crazy that it takes this long to get a result.”
Parents of students no longer at the school who were enrolled around the time of the 2014 incident wanted to know what their children may have been exposed to immediately after the training event.
But Brian Toal of the state Department of Public Health said there’s no way to retroactively determine the health risks to those kids, though he expects any possible effects from the one-time event to be minimal.
Unlike other public health contaminants such as lead, Toal said there are no medical treatments for PFAS ingestion. The town has already done what it can to prevent long-term exposure and adverse health effects.
“The only thing you can do is stop drinking the water,” he said.
Pendall, who sat at the front of the room at Wednesday’s meeting with a legal pad of questions and notes, wanted to know how the Cherry Brook incident could have happened in the first place.
“In what universe would our fire department come to an elementary school where there’s a well and spray that stuff without even notifying the school that that was happening?” he asked. “You don’t need to know what PFAS is to know that that stuff is dangerous.”
No town or state officials at the meeting could answer that question.
Jenny Abel, a parent of a first-grade student, asked whether the town could ensure that an event like this never happens again on school property or elsewhere in the community.
Lockwood said he issued a new policy that will allow the use of firefighter foam only in emergency situations at the direction of a fire commander.
Town officials said they plan to hold more community meetings on possible water treatment solutions and additional testing once the well water results come in.