While there is currently no enforceable federal limit on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in U.S. drinking water, individual states are moving forward with varying approaches to identification, monitoring, and control measures that are forecasted to cost water and wastewater utilities more than $3 billion by 2030 to address associated health risks, a new report has found.
Any significant increase in water treatment solutions may hinge on federal U.S. policies, although 29 states have already implemented a mix of policy directives, including testing requirements and prohibitions on notoriously persistent PFAS for product applications such as food packaging like microwave popcorn bags, firefighting foam, stain, oil and water repellent chemicals, and its use in manufacturing processes.
“These chemicals have been around for over 70 years, but only in the past few has public awareness reached levels of critical concern for the water sector,” according to Greg Goodwin, an analyst for Bluefield Research, the source of the new report. “They are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not break down and are now making their way into humans by a number of pathways, including drinking water and consumer goods,” added Goodwin.
According to the Bluefield Research report, some 1,400 industrial and commercial sites in the U.S. have been identified in 49 states with varying amounts of PFAS contamination. The sites include military facilities, industrial sites, airports, and drinking water facilities. Among these, 223 community water systems that serve populations of more than 3,000 people in 12 states have tested positive for PFAS, which has been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, liver damage, low birth weights and higher cholesterol.
More and more U.S. communities will be spending money on water treatment technologies to remove PFAS from drinking water systems, the report states. Sales are expected to boom for treatment technologies such as granular activated carbon, ion exchange or reverse osmosis filtration systems.
Brunswick County, North Carolina, for example, is one of the U.S. communities challenged most by PFAS contamination after compounds were discovered in the Cape Fear River in June 2017. The county spent $137 million for reverse osmosis upgrades to its water treatment plant. The project expanded the plant’s conventional treatment facility from 24 million gallons per day to 45 million gallons per day.
Additionally, the Orange County Water District (OCWD) in California is investing $1.4 million into what it has called the “nation’s largest PFAS pilot programme”, together with engineering firm, Carollo Engineers. The pilot will test various treatment methods expected to remove PFAS from groundwater to below detectable levels.
“PFAS contamination is a pervasive problem throughout the nation, and we are doing everything in our power to be a part of the solution,” said Patrick Versluis, OCWD’s director of water quality.
PFAS contamination is extensive in the U.S. The federal Department of Defense claims there are roughly 678 military sites contaminated by PFAS, primarily due to its disproportionate use of firefighting foam. The U.S. Environmental Working Group has found 28 bases with PFAS in drinking water at levels above those set by some state regulators.
Other parts of the world are making progress on PFAS, too. In December 2019, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union agreed to set a legally binding drinking water limit for PFAS detected in drinking water. Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are seeking evidence from interested parties as they draft restrictions over the next two years.
Canada, some experts have warned, has been slow to respond to the lingering threat of PFAS contamination.
“Many jurisdictions around the world are setting regulations and standards for specific PFAS and are taking steps to assess their potential for human exposure,” wrote Francois Lauzon, vice-president of environmental services for Stantec, for the spring 2020 issue of Environmental Science & Engineering Magazine.
“But, aside from British Columbia, we haven’t seen any guidelines from Canadian provinces on PFAS,” added Lauzon, who notes that many uncertainties still exist related to the toxicity of these chemicals, which remain a particularly challenging puzzle to investigate.
Lauzon stated that while some manufacturers have done well to phase out use of PFAS under new restrictions, there has been a distinct lack of regulations and centralized federal policy in terms of contaminated site remediation programs, hazardous waste management and wastewater treatment.
While some small steps have been taken, such as Transport Canada allowing airports in June 2019 to use PFAS-free firefighting foam, Health Canada’s Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines released in December 2018 for PFOS and PFOA remain substantially weaker than U.S. based guidelines, and to date, B.C. remains the only province to establish provincial drinking water regulations.
Unlike the U.S., which has begun to map PFAS contamination in great detail, no location-specific maps exist for Canada to help communities identify the monitoring location and results of PFAS in drinking water or groundwater.