PFAS: A rapidly emerging environmental challenge

Posted in: Environmental

Firefighters using Polyfluoroalkyl SubstancesBarely a week goes by without a new report in the news about the human health and ecological impacts of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). The water supply in a small city in New York state is contaminated to the point where they’ve had to turn to alternative sources. Fish consumption advisories have been issued for popular fishing rivers in Michigan.

While communities are faced with these frightening impacts, scientific understanding of the issue remains incomplete, and regulatory guidance is still under development. Adding to the frustration is the fact that these negative impacts are an unintended consequence of innovative products that benefit all of us.

This is a really challenging issue, and one we are committed to keeping an eye on.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances defined

PFAS is a family of about 3,000 manmade chemicals that have been around since just after World War II. Their chemical characteristics provide numerous benefits. They are non-stick, highly heat resistant, and waterproof, which has led to their use in a variety of products. Think cookware coatings, fabric protectors, and aqueous fire-fighting foams among a host of other applications.

The same chemical characteristics that make them useful also contribute to PFAS persistence in the environment. PFAS do not break down easily and tend to accumulate in the cells of plants and animals, with concentrations increasing up the food chain. Because ingestion is the primary exposure route, their presence in drinking water sources and food is an immediate concern.

Although the scientific understanding of the impact of PFAS is still developing, what we do know is cause for concern. Research by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry has shown that in some studies of humans with PFAS exposure, certain PFAS compounds may:

  • Affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and older children
  • Reduce a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
  • Interfere with the body’s natural hormones
  • Increase cholesterol levels
  • Affect the immune system
  • Increase the risk of cancer

In response to this and other research, production of these studied compounds was ceased several years ago.  However, other members of the PFAS family are still in production and use.

The regulatory picture

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established health advisory levels of 70 parts per trillion of PFAS in drinking water. To put this concentration in perspective, one part per trillion in units of time is one second out of 32,000 years.

Due its “emerging contaminant” status, national standards are not yet developed for PFAS. Advisories are not standards, which carry an enforcement component (i.e., you aren’t required to adhere to advisories, but you are legally required to comply with standards). The USEPA is taking a multi-pronged approach to developing these standards, which includes:

  • Evaluating the need for a maximum contaminant level for PFAS in drinking water
  • Taking steps to classify PFAS as hazardous substances
  • Developing groundwater cleanup guidance at contaminated sites.

Some states aren’t waiting for the federal government to issue standards. As of this summer, 15 states have developed ranges of standards for safe drinking water and/or groundwater. Some states have also adopted the USEPA health advisory standards for drinking water. There are also states that have issued fish consumption advisories based on elevated PFAS concentrations.

The challenges presented by PFAS contamination are daunting. Until recently these chemicals weren’t considered hazardous materials, so their disposal didn’t involve any special requirements. As a result, they were relatively uncontrolled and widely dispersed.

USEPA and other researchers are developing and using innovative approaches to find and measure PFAS in the environment and identify contributing sources. There are many different PFAS and concentrations of potential concern are quite small, so accurate measurement is a significant challenge.

What does this mean for you?

It’s a complicated issue and the science and regulations are still evolving. However, regulators and the public are rapidly gaining awareness and justified concern. When communities’ water supplies are so contaminated that they must seek alternative sources, lawsuits inevitably follow.

Mead & Hunt has been helping clients address various aspects of the PFAS issue for the past several years. This is an issue that is going to persist for many years to come. We’re committed to staying on top of these rapidly evolving scientific, regulatory and engineering developments.

Laura Morland, PE

About the Author

As Environmental Practice Leader, Laura Morland, P.E., gets involved with a variety of projects. She enjoys the collaborative nature of the environmental practice, which involves clients, stakeholders and  environmental specialists in developing solutions. “I like having a chance to apply lessons-learned to new projects and situations.” In her spare time, she enjoys reading and working in her woods and prairie.


Read more posts by Laura Morland, PE

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