PFAS in our water is here to stay

By Jack Kusek 

The majority of U.S. waterways are likely contaminated with “forever chemicals,” according to a new study by the Waterkeeper Alliance that found detectable levels of per- and polyfluoroalkl substances, or PFAS, in 83 percent of waterways tested across 34 states and the District of Columbia. 

PFAS chemicals are long lasting and widely used in waterproof products, from nonstick pans to raincoats, and are known to cause health issues with persistent use. While industrial manufacturers are a significant source of PFAS, landfills, airports, military bases, and wastewater treatment plants are also known to have the chemicals, of which there are thousands. These chemicals have been found in air, water, soil, and fish around the globe, and are nearly impossible to destroy. 

Contaminated water can’t be treated by conventional means at a wastewater plant, as the chemicals are too strong to be eliminated by anything other than incineration, which many communities are banning, so the PFAS returns to the water system. Membrane treatment reduces the PFAS into a more concentrated solution, but disposal options are limited to deep well injection or isolation in remote areas.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are proposing vastly different recommendations for the amount of PFAS that is acceptable in drinking water. 

WHO’s draft guidance recommends a limit of 100 parts per trillion (ppt) of either PFOA or PFOS (two types of PFAS) in drinking water, while the EPA issued an interim health advisory of 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS. 

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is reviewing the EPA’s proposed rule to regulate PFOA and PFAS in drinking water, which includes a maximum contaminant level goal and a national primary drinking water regulation.  

Regardless of which levels are deemed acceptable for PFAS in drinking water, it’s important that our clients are aware of the prevalence of PFAS in drinking water. Our civil engineers are staying on top of these regulations so that we can influence the EPA and rule makers and identify technology and help find solutions to dealing with contaminated water. 

Related reading: US moves to come clean on PFAS in drinking water

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