Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances collectively referred to as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” are being detected in water and many types of foods. Viraj deSilva of SCS Engineers provides an overview of sources, treatment processes used to remove them from wastewater, and government advisory limits in this recent article in World Water Magazine.
PFAS is extremely persistent in the environment and includes more than 4,500 synthetic chemicals, are organic compounds whose hydrogen atoms are replaced by fluorine. The bonds between fluorine and carbon are extremely strong and difficult to break.
The two main PFAS compound structures are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured or used in the US, but similar replacement chemicals (such as GenX) remain. Other countries still manufacture PFAS and many consumer products imported to the US from those countries still contain the compounds.
About 610 locations in 43 US states serving an estimated 19 million people have PFAS in the drinking water, according to the Environmental Working Group and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, United States (US). See the full references in the article.
The current US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health advisory limit is 70 parts per trillion. However, as an advisory level, it is not enforced – meaning that the water is not required to be tested for PFAS compounds. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed that forever chemicals were detected in many foods. The FDA tested 91 foods, including fresh produce, baked goods, meat, and fish.
Perfluorinated chemicals will continue to be subject to studies, risk assessments, possible regulations, and data collection under several statutes, so product and waste-reduction practices should be considered immediately to reduce potential consequences.
There are solutions to all of these challenges and the new EPA Action Plan; new measures will lead to better protection of potable water from the harmful impacts of forever chemicals.