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Cape Cod researchers study removing PFAS from the waste stream

Test sites at the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center (MASSTC) in Sandwich.
Test sites at the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center (MASSTC) in Sandwich.

The Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center, or MASSTC, is a premier site for wastewater research located on Cape Cod.

Some of their tests involve adding woodchips to septic systems to help remove nitrogen from the environment, but could those woodchips also be used to remove the “forever chemicals” PFAS from the waste stream?

The Center has been working with EPA scientists for the last two years to find out.

Brian Baumgaertel is MASSTC Director and Barnstable County’s Wastewater Director.

He said early results suggest the woodchip systems can remove PFAS.  

An alternative septic system at MASSTC
Brian Engles
An alternative septic system at MASSTC in Sandwich.

“It’s a little bit of an exciting time to be working on this stuff because we’re seeing something that we designed for one purpose and may actually work well for another purpose and help to solve another problem in the process.”

Baumgaertel said they’re still studying how the PFAS are being removed by the woodchips.

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to health problems, including cancer.

PFAS is also present in sludge, the solid material that’s left over at the end of the wastewater treatment process.

Baumgaertel said this is one reason why there are fewer places to dispose of sludge.

As towns throughout Cape Cod invest millions of dollars expanding sewers, they may run out of sludge disposal locations.

Baumgaertel said most of the Cape’s sludge is currently shipped to an incinerator in Rhode Island.

“So, as we produce more sludge and as that facility, which is already over capacity, as we hit that point, we’re going to have to go further and further away for our sludge disposal purposes.”

Other tests at MASSTC involve urine diversion toilets that separate urine from the waste stream.

The system is an effort to reduce the nitrogen from waste that’s harming local waters.

A machine that pasteurizes urine at the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center.
Brian Engles
A machine that pasteurizes urine at MASSTC.

Bryan Horsley is MASSTC Site Operator.

He said once the diverted urine gets pasteurized, it can then be used as fertilizer by farmers and landscapers.

“We can take a product that was a harmful waste that’s messing up our water quality and turn it around into something that has value.”

Horsley said 80% of the nitrogen in residential wastewater comes from urine.

“I’ve seen a lot of people who live in freshwater pond watersheds where they’re very concerned about the water quality and seeing harmful cyanobacteria blooms every summer. And I think a lot of those people feel helpless and see this [urine diversion] as something that they can engage to help that problem right away,” Horsley said.

In November, Falmouth leaders approved the use of $80,000 of federal funds for outreach and education for a urine diversion project that was approved at Town Meeting.

Brian Engles is an author, a Cape Cod local, and a producer for Morning Edition.