1

PFAS: The Forever Chemical Problem

PFAS or per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances are a class of thousands of human-made chemicals that have been dubbed “forever chemicals.” Most PFAS do not breakdown in the environment, and their production, use and disposal have led to widespread environmental contamination. This contamination can be found in both groundwater and surface water sources.

Commercial use of PFAS began in the1940s, they are used in everything from non-stick pans to personal care products and clothing. While they keep eggs from sticking to the skillet and provide a quality waterproof jacket, they pose a risk to the environment and living organisms. PFAS are so widespread that they have been detected globally in the blood of humans and animals. Research indicates PFAS can impact reproductive health, developmental health in children, increase risks for certain cancers and reduce immune response. Other negative health impacts have been identified, and new research on PFAS health effects continues to emerge.

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a health advisory that recommended that PFOS or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and PFOA or perfluorooctanoic acid (the two most studied and widely produced PFAS) not exceed 70 parts per thousand (ppt) in drinking water samples. In 2021, the EPA Council on PFAS was established to form a strategy to address the impacts of PFAS on public and environmental health. The resulting document, “PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA’s Commitment to Action 2021-2024” lays out an aggressive plan to approach PFAS from an agency-wide perspective.

In June 2022, the EPA provided an interim health advisory that revised the recommended level of PFOS to not exceed ppt and the recommended level of PFOA to not exceed ppt. The interim health advisory will remain in place until the EPA can set a National Primary Drinking Water Standard for the chemicals.

While we can agree that PFAS must be removed from drinking water, the problem of PFAS has somewhat outpaced readily achievable solutions. Currently, treatment techniques identified for the removal of PFAS can be cost-prohibitive to implement, especially for small systems. Activated carbon, ion exchange, and pressure membrane treatment have been recognized as techniques to reduce PFAS in drinking water. Each treatment type has varying effectiveness in removing PFAS, and all the treatment techniques produce contaminated waste that must be properly disposed of. Added costs of new treatment types, maintenance, and waste removal can be difficult for small systems to navigate. The current testing methods, the recommended advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are below detection and measurable levels, i.e., PFAS may be present in water samples in amounts that exceed recommended levels though testing indicates no presence of the contaminant at all.

Fortunately, assistance is being offered to address these concerns. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides one billion dollars in funding to address PFAS in drinking water with a focus on providing funding to disadvantaged and small communities. As the infrastructure is put into place to effectively treat PFAS, treatment techniques advance, and PFAS is adequately regulated across all sectors, there will be an increase in water quality to the benefit of public and environmental health.

Concerned about your water?  Visit our Environmental Services Department page