The Emerging PFAS-sphere

We’ve all heard about the chlorine and fluoride in our water, but many people are not aware of the ever-present per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in our food, workplaces, household products, and drinking water. These chemicals were first introduced in the United States during the 1940s, but were eventually phased out as ingredients or emissions. However, PFAS are still generally used in international manufacturing and can be imported to the United States in consumer goods.

PFAS are part of a man-made family of compounds that include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), Gen X, and thousands more. Each compound is water-repellent and has a stable carbon-fluorine bond, proving difficult for degradation in the environment or living organisms. PFAS compounds are used as water/stain repellants for fabric, nonstick coatings, waxes, fire-fighting foams, electronics, and others. Extensive and frequent use of such products typically results in the release of PFAS compounds into the surrounding land, air, water, and living organisms.

Most people are not exposed to high concentrations of PFAS on a regular basis. However, the poor degradation of PFAS lends itself to accumulation in living organisms over a long period of time. PFOA and PFOS are the two most researched compounds in relation to human health. Studies have shown higher levels of these two compounds are linked to high cholesterol, tumors, and immune system issues, as well as reproductive, developmental, liver, and kidney effects.

As a part of the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule Number 3, the EPA conducted a national data collection on PFAS compounds from 2013 to 2015, studying six of the most common PFAS compounds present in the environment. In 2016, a revised drinking water Health Advisory (HA) was published which lowered the lifetime HA to 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Twenty-five percent of water treatment plants in EPA Region 9 (California, Nevada, Washington, and Oregon) reported concentrations greater than 70 ppt during this time.

To combat the rising risk to public health, the EPA established the PFAS Action Plan in February 2019 to address emerging contaminants and help public agencies protect their communities. These guidelines and regulations set a precedent for how the nation will respond to these harmful compounds in the coming years. The EPA published a PFAS Action Plan Update in February 2020, ultimately expanding the list of reliable tests for drinking water, coordination with the Safe Water Drinking Act to define PFOA and PFOS limits, and improved toxicity assessments. To read the full PFAS Action Plan, click here.

California is following these guidelines from the EPA to ensure our communities continue to receive clean, safe drinking water. The state has defined its Response Level (RL) as the 70 ppt EPA limit, while Notification Levels (NL) are 5.1 ppt for PFOA and 6.1 ppt for PFOS. If a water source tests above the RL, the source of the PFAS compounds must be found and removed. If the NL is activated, the source must be identified and the concentration reduced. If the concentration cannot be reduced, the source of the PFAS compounds must be removed.

MKN is currently working on the pilot testing, planning, design, and construction of a PFAS removal facility with the Atascadero Mutual Water Company. The current phase of the project will focus on processing groundwater from several contaminated wells to comply with the current regulations.

Blog Co-author, Stefanos Word, EIT, ENV SP

Blog Co-author, Chris Martin, PE