Aug 30, 2021

PFAS 101: "Forever Chemicals" in Drinking Water

Confronting the many complexities of “forever chemicals” in the U.S. public drinking water supply

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in source and drinking water has placed water and wastewater operators at the center of an environmental maelstrom. 

The widespread presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the country’s source and drinking waters has placed entities who are responsible for keeping the U.S. water supply safe at the center of an intense public health and environmental maelstrom.  

These toxic man-made substances, which are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals,” are utilized in a wide range of medicinal products, industrial applications, and household commercial products, including carpet protectant, paint, non-stick cookware, food packaging, water-resistant apparel and fire-fighting foams. 

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The Memorable Moniker of PFAS

PFAS was given its highly memorable moniker after numerous research studies revealed that these synthetic chemicals, which encompass nearly 5,000 different types of long-chain and short-chain PFAS, can accumulate in the human body, persist in the environment, and resist degradation in nature. The fact that these toxic substances, which were first introduced in the 1940s, do not break down naturally means human exposure to PFAS could go on for hundreds or thousands of years.

PFAS are extremely pervasive, appearing in the blood of 95% of people in the United States. Individuals are exposed to PFAS through typical, everyday behaviors and studies suggest that high-level exposure to certain compounds, most notably perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), can have serious health consequences. 

Frequently cited human outcomes include heightened cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, decreased immune response to vaccinations in very young children, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer

In many respect, health-related research on PFAS is still in its infancy as scientists around the globe are striving to learn more about the health effects of exposures to mixtures of different PFAS.


Watch the video below for how legal teams are holding PFAS polluters accountable:


Under Pressure to Regulate PFAS

PFAS chemicals enter the environment at sites where they are made, used, disposed of, or spilled. Wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), chemical manufacturing plants, airports, and military bases that use firefighting foams are among the main sources of PFAS. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) states that more than 600 military sites and surrounding communities across the country could be contaminated with PFAS. 

PFAS are mobile and transported through rainwater run-off and enter surface water (lakes, ponds, etc.) or seep through the soil and migrate into groundwater. Prominent environmental watchdog consortiums, such as the Environmental Working Group, believe that various PFAS are likely detectable in virtually all the nation’s major water supplies, particularly those that draw drinking water from surface sources.

Under intense pressure to minimize the amount of PFAS in drinking water, numerous states, including Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and Michigan, have adopted enforceable standards or Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for PFAS. To achieve their respective safety targets, the states launched a number of progressive initiatives over the past few years. Key among them were: 

  • Identifying industrial users that are potential sources of PFAS;
  • Sampling probable sources and their WWTP discharge if sources exceed screening criteria; 
  • Requiring source reduction at confirmed sources; and 
  • Monitoring compliance of confirmed sources to ensure they meet designated requirements.

In concert with the preceding initiatives, the ready availability of treatment technologies provide facilities with a means to remove PFAS. Drinking water treatment plants have several options to choose from in this evolving space. Three technologies -- granular activated carbon (GAC), ion exchange resins, and reverse osmosis (RO) -- are currently accepted as the best available technologies for PFAS removal.

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States vs. EPA on PFAS Regulations

Historically, the efforts of federal regulatory bodies to harness the presence of PFAS in the nation’s source and drinking waters have largely paled in comparison to the heavy lifting performed by local and state municipalities. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a non-enforceable health advisory for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion in drinking water, which was roundly panned as being too high by many watchdog and scientific groups. 

Late last year, in an unanticipated move, the EPA issued an interim strategy for addressing potential wastewater discharges of PFAS as part of the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting process. 

The strategy recommends that federal NPDES permit writers consider incorporating requirements for monitoring and control of PFAS into wastewater permits when PFAS are expected to be present. The policy calls for monitoring to begin once newly developed analytical methods are validated in multi-laboratory trials. 

Where appropriate, the strategy encourages WWTPs to employ best management practices to control or abate the discharge of PFAS. It also includes recommendations to facilitate information sharing to foster adoption of best practices across states and localities.

The recommendations, from a regulatory perspective, are not legally binding and only apply to instances where the EPA is the permitting authority. Going forward, the federal agency hopes that many state permit writers will ultimately adopt these suggestions and provisions.

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EPA's PFAS Analytical Method Development

In coordination with the DoD, and as part of its NPDES strategy, the EPA is developing new analytical methods to test for PFAS compounds in wastewater and other environmental media, such as soil. The agency has released a list of 40 PFAS chemicals that are the subject of analytical method development. 

The method, which is expected to be released this year, will augment existing EPA methods (i.e., 533 and 537.1) which are already approved and can measure 29 PFAS chemicals in drinking water. 

The DoD and National Environmental Laboratories Accreditation Conference (NELAC) administer certification programs for commercial testing laboratories seeking to perform PFAS testing in accordance with established EPA methods.  

PFAS Action Plan of 2021

PFAS are manifest in the air we breathe, the soil in which we harvest our crops, and the water we drink. The ubiquitous presence of forever chemicals in the environment and their damaging effects on human health makes it difficult to grasp how the U.S. government has not enacted sweeping federal legislation to address the ongoing PFAS crisis in the country. 

This could all change with the passage of the “PFAS Action Plan of 2021.” The proposed legislation outlines a number of measures that would protect air, land and water from harmful PFAS contamination. The regulation would:

  • Require the EPA to place discharge limits on industrial releases of PFAS and provide $200 million annually for wastewater treatment;
  • Require the EPA to establish a national drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS within two years that protects public health, including the health of vulnerable sub-populations;
  • Designate PFOA and PFOS chemicals as hazardous substances within one year and require the EPA to determine whether to list other PFAS within five (5) years;
  • Designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous air pollutants within 180 days and require the EPA to determine whether to list other PFAS within five years;
  • Prohibit unsafe incineration of PFAS wastes and place a moratorium on the introduction of new PFAS into commerce;
  • Require comprehensive PFAS health testing; and
  • Create a voluntary label for PFAS in cookware

The legislation, which has drawn bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of the Biden administration, signifies a significant leap forward in PFAS regulation at the federal level and portends hope for future enforcement activities. 

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What Lies Ahead

Water safety stakeholders are facing increasing pressure to lasso and control forever chemicals in public water supplies. The challenges confronting them are many, oft-times necessitating the assistance of outside experts and professionals to help them achieve their goals. Whether selecting the appropriate PFAS treatment technology, partnering with an able analytical testing provider, or gaining insights on complex guidelines and recommendations, it is essential for stakeholders to perform a thorough due diligence on potential partners.

The PFAS regulatory backdrop is poised for considerable change in the U.S.; planning and preparation are integral to meeting what lies ahead.

About the author

Peter Rundell is a business development manager specializing in environmental, drinking water, and wastewater testing for Microbac Laboratories (www.microbac.com). He can be reached at [email protected]

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