What are PFAS, and what makes them concerning contaminants?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a diverse group of fluorinated chemicals with varying chemical and physical properties. They are an integral part of many useful and life-saving items, such as AFFF firefighting foam used by the military and airports, non-stick coatings on cookware, water-resistant fabrics like rain jackets, umbrellas, and tents, as well as common cosmetics, cleaners, and shampoos.

You might be surprised to learn that PFAS can be found in the blood of almost all residents in the United States and other industrialized countries worldwide. The properties that make these chemicals highly effective in their applications are also the reason they are challenging to dispose of and, consequently, pervasive. As a result, PFAS raise concern because of their persistence and mobility in the environment.

Toxicological studies have shown that even low levels of PFAS exposure can result in detrimental effects such as reproductive and developmental problems, liver and kidney damage, and some forms of cancer. Despite regulations and guidelines aimed at limiting exposure, they remain a significant problem due to their widespread use and lack of alternatives.

What are the current methods for detecting and monitoring PFAS contamination, and how effective are they?

Detection of PFAS has improved significantly in the past decade. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed several analytical methods to detect PFAS, including two methods (EPA 533 and 537.1 version 2) for analyzing drinking water and one method (EPA SW-846 8327) for analyzing groundwater and surface water. Additionally, the EPA has issued a draft method (EPA method 1633) for analyzing various samples, including aqueous, solid, biosolids, and tissue samples, which is expected to be finalized later this year.

To determine the extent and nature of PFAS contamination, the federal and state governments are collecting water and soil samples from various locations across the country. These efforts aim to provide more information on the distribution and concentration of PFAS, ultimately helping to address and mitigate the risks associated with PFAS contamination.

What does the regulatory PFAS landscape look like, and what updates have been made recently?

Navigating the regulatory landscape for PFAS can be challenging, especially given the lack of consistency among states. States most affected by PFAS contamination have taken the lead in regulating PFAS levels, but there is a lack of continuity between different states’ regulations.

To address the issue, the EPA has started the process of regulating PFAS in drinking water.  In the spring of 2023, EPA proposed drinking water limits for six PFAS at levels as low as 4 parts per trillion.  Recently, the EPA has also proposed regulating seven PFAS as Hazardous Substances under CERCLA, providing a framework for addressing PFAS contamination through cost recovery and liability provisions.

Despite these regulatory developments, many goods producers are hesitant to invest in a set of regulations that may change in the future. As a result, many are adopting a “wait and see” approach to PFAS regulation, delaying investment until there is greater clarity and certainty around regulatory requirements.

What is the outlook for PFAS’ future research and regulation, and what developments can we expect in the coming years?

The detection of PFAS has come a long way, but there is still much to be done.  Advancements in methodologies now enable detection at increasingly lower concentrations, making it possible to measure PFAS in parts per trillion. The development and use of more sensitive and accurate detection methods have also played a critical role in guiding the development of regulatory standards and guidelines.

Currently, cleanup technologies for PFAS have been limited to sorption technologies that sequester the contamination without destroying the PFAS. These technologies remove PFAS from water but retain them on the sorption media, which must be dealt with later. However, new technologies that destroy PFAS are in development and being deployed on a limited basis, including supercritical water oxidation and plasma technologies.

The Department of Defense (DoD) is funding research to develop PFAS cleanup technologies from laboratory-scale testing to field-scale testing. As a result, several technologies are now being rolled out as startup companies work to further develop them. The DoD continues to fund a significant amount of PFAS research through universities and technology development companies, some of which is now being implemented in real-world applications.

As the EPA determines the health effects of additional PFAS, regulations will continue to evolve, potentially impacting many industries across North America. For example, several PFAS are proposed to be listed as hazardous substances under CERCLA, which will have a significant impact on affected industries. We also expect to see additional PFAS regulated in drinking water after further studies are completed in the next few years.

How does environmental justice intersect with PFAS?

Low-income and minority communities are more likely to be exposed to PFAS due to factors such as proximity to industrial sites, landfills, and other potential sources of contamination. These communities may have limited access to clean drinking water or resources to mitigate the risks of PFAS exposure.

Environmental justice advocates argue that the response to PFAS contamination must prioritize the needs and concerns of these vulnerable communities. This includes ensuring that affected communities have access to safe drinking water, providing resources to mitigate exposure risks, and involving affected communities in the decision-making process related to PFAS contamination. It also involves ensuring that industries and responsible parties are held accountable for the cost of remediation and cleanup efforts.

In recent years, environmental justice has become an increasingly prominent issue in the context of PFAS contamination, leading to increased attention and action by regulators and policymakers. However, much work remains to be done to ensure that all communities have access to clean and safe environments.

How can Salas O’Brien help public and private clients with PFAS contaminants?

Given the rapidly changing landscape of PFAS policies, regulations, monitoring, and cleanup technologies, it can be challenging for clients to navigate the regulatory process on their own. Salas O’Brien provides programmatic support to clients, offering guidance and expertise throughout the process of addressing PFAS issues.

As regulations and policies continue to evolve, Salas O’Brien stays up-to-date with the latest changes, providing clients with the most current information and solutions to address PFAS contamination. By staying ahead of the curve with engineering expertise, Salas O’Brien helps clients mitigate risks associated with PFAS and achieve regulatory compliance efficiently and effectively.

For media inquiries on this article, reach out to Stacy Lake.

Andrea Sojda, PMP

Andrea Sojda, PMP

Andrea Sojda is a leader in environmental engineering and consulting services. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Andrea has successfully led teams in complex projects and provided sustainable solutions for a wide range of clients. She has an MS in Organizational and Leadership Ethics from St. Edward’s University and a BS in Agricultural Development from Texas A&M University. Andrea serves as a Principal at Salas O’Brien. Contact her at [email protected].

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