Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are receiving increasing attention from regulators and the media. Within this large group of compounds, much of the focus has been on two long-chain compounds that are non-biodegradable in the environment: PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). Long detected in most people’s bodies, research now shows how “forever chemicals” like PFAS accumulate and can take years to leave. They persist even when excreted through urine. Scientists have even tracked them in biosolids and leafy greens like kale. Recent studies have linked widely used PFAS, including the varieties called PFOA and PFOS, to reduced immune response and cancer. PFAS have been used in coatings for textiles, paper products, cookware, to create some firefighting foams and in many other applications.
Testing of large public water systems across the country in 2013 through 2015 found PFAS detected in approximately 4 percent of the water systems, with concentrations above the USEPA drinking water health advisory level (70 parts per trillion) in approximately 1 percent (from ITRC Fact Sheet.) Sources of higher concentrations have included industrial sites and locations were aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) containing PFAS has been repeatedly used for fire fighting or training.
Source identification is more difficult for more widespread low-level PFAS levels. For example, in Madison, Wisconsin, PFAS have been detected in 14 of 23 municipal water supply wells, but the detected concentrations were below the USEPA’s health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS. A study of potential PFAS sources near two of the Madison wells identified factories, fire stations, landfills, and sludge from sewage treatment plants as possible sources, but did not identify a specific source.
With the EPA positioned to take serious action on PFAS in late 2019 and 2020, regulators in many states have already started to implement their own measures, while state and federal courts are beginning to address legal issues surrounding this emerging contaminant. State actions have resulted in a variety of state groundwater standards for specific PFAS compounds, including some that are significantly lower than the USEPA advisory levels. These changes mean new potential liabilities and consequences for organizations that manufacture, use, or sell PFAS or PFAS-containing products, and also for the current owners of properties affected by historic PFAS use.
Questions for manufacturers, property owners, and property purchasers include:
If remediation is required, a number of established options to remove PFAS from contaminated soil and groundwater are available, including activated carbon, ion exchange or high-pressure membrane systems. On-site treatment options, including the management of reject streams where applicable, are also available.
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