What is PFAS?
PFAS has gained focus as an emerging contaminant over the past several years, and regulatory agencies are moving relatively quickly on addressing it. The acronym is used to encompass the entire group of more than 5,000 per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds. Manufacturing of these compounds began more than 85 years ago, and studies completed over the past several decades have shown that exposure to some PFAS compounds at extremely low concentrations over long periods of time may result in negative health impacts in humans. While the manufacturers of these chemicals voluntarily phased out production of two of the compounds, PFOA and PFOS, these compounds remain prevalent in the environment, and the replacement chemicals manufactured for these are also being found to pose human health risks.
PFAS compounds are extremely useful in many of the products we use. They repel oil and water, they are heat conductive, temperature resistant, and extremely stable. Each of these properties makes them ideal for use in cookware, fast food containers, makeup, and a variety of other everyday products. The properties that make them ideal for manufacturing also make them extremely difficult to treat. Their stability results in their ability to bioaccumulate, meaning that rather than degrading in the environment, they continue to build up in concentration, not just in the environment, but in our bloodstreams as well. This also makes them difficult to remove and destroy in our water resources.
How is It Being Addressed?
To date, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has taken several steps in guiding regulations to start to address PFAS contamination in the environment. It has issued rules for manufacturers of these chemicals, developed a roadmap for federal agency action, provided health advisories in 2016 which were then updated in 2022, proposed legally enforceable limits for six PFAS compounds in drinking water, developed a national PFAS testing strategy and nationwide sampling for 29 PFAS compounds in drinking water, and has proposed to designate two PFAS compounds as Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) hazardous substances. These actions will have significant impacts on our drinking water and wastewater utilities.
The current limits that USEPA has recommended for drinking water regulation are based on the current lab testing abilities. The proposed limits are above the health advisory limits released in 2022. As the testing capabilities improve and labs can reliably detect lower concentrations of PFAS compounds, it is anticipated that the maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) will continue to decrease to become more in line with the health advisories.
How is Lochmueller Group’s Water Resources Team Responding?
Lochmueller’s Water Resources team has taken an active role in learning about the regulatory climate and actions for PFAS compounds to better understand what will be needed out of their designs. They also continue to take an active role in learning about the treatment and destruction technologies that have been proven successful and those that are still in the testing phases. Current proven drinking water technologies will require a second treatment process for destruction once limits have been set for solid and liquid wastes.
Currently, Lochmueller’s Water Resources team is planning and designing Water Treatment Plants to include PFAS removal. The considerations in developing most appropriate removal processes pose a unique set of challenges as regulations are continuing to evolve at a more rapid pace. Not only must the best technology and processes be considered for achieving the existing MCLs set by USEPA, but the ability to achieve much more stringent limits in the future must be evaluated. In addition to the effectiveness of the PFAS removal process, the ultimate disposal or destruction of waste generated from the treatment process must be considered.
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Written by Sandy Bernard, PE, Process Engineer III, October 2023