This is the second post on poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), those problematic “contaminants of emerging concern.”
Writing about PFAS is difficult because the landscape is changing so fast. During the last year, this family of 5,000 human-made chemicals has caused increasing consternation among drinking water and wastewater professionals and regulators. As awareness of their prevalence — in our bodies, food, consumer goods, industrial products, and water – grows, at least 20 alarmed state legislatures have crafted policies to confront the problem.
Above: Firefighting foam is among the most concentrated sources of localized PFAS contamination.
In the last couple of months, national and regional water and wastewater organizations have jumped into the issue with member advisories and Congressional testimonies. As GMWEA’s Government Affairs committee members can attest, water quality professionals’ inboxes are often jammed with PFAS-related bulletins from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), Water Environment Federation (WEF), American Water Works Association (AWWA), and many others.
Coherent, consistent policy related to PFAS is hard to establish for a number of reasons:
- The scientific and regulatory issues are complex — and hard to quickly convey to preoccupied policy-makers.
- There are so many PFAS, with so many vehicles for human exposure; their sources, transport and persistence characteristics, and health effects vary widely.
- Their health effects have, for the most part, not been confidently ascertained. As WEF states about H.R. 2500 (see below), “With limited research into the health effects of the 5,000 PFAS compounds and no established analytical methods and treatment methods for wastewater effluent, this amendment is bad policy.”
- Misconceptions abound, sometimes prompting hasty decisions in attempts to protect the public health.
Above: PFAS foam on a Michigan lake, residual from mining operations. Photo thanks to the Detroit Free Press.
Where things stand in the U.S. Congress:
In July, both houses of Congress passed legislation on PFAS as part of the National Defense Authorization Act – but the House and Senate versions differed. As of this writing, the House bill, H.R. 2500, has provisions that would regulate PFAS under CERCLA, the Superfund legislation passed in 1980. CERCLA has strict stipulations about retroactive liability, which WEF says “could place the burden on FPAS ‘receivers,’ such as wastewater and drinking water agencies.'”
The Senate version, S.1790, does not include these provisions, and the various water associations are advocating for terms more like the Senate’s; the bills will have to be reconciled in conference during September. However, to add to the confusion, President Trump has signaled he’ll veto the bill in either form!
The national and regional drinking water and wastewater associations strongly support government action to protect public health, but warn of “unintended consequences” of legislation. The sheer lack of information about PFAS and the risk of local liability are their chief concern.
- Of particular concern is the misconception that wastewater treatment plants generate or add PFAS. They don’t — treatment facilities only convey what they receive from influent.
- The best solution is to prevent PFAS from entering the wastewater stream — to identify sources, prohibit certain commercial uses, and focus on origin-specific mitigation.
- Wastewater treatment plants — that is, the communities that they serve — are unable to afford the expense of measuring, monitoring, and removal of PFAS arriving at facilities.
- Trace amounts of PFAS in wastewater plant effluent, and in biosolids, could potentially enter groundwater and thus drinking water sources. However, according to the North East Biosolids and Residuals Association (NEBRA), except in “a few worst-case scenarios” when treatment plants have received exceptionally high concentrations from industrial and other points of origin, impact on drinking water sources is not likely to exceed established concentration limits. NEBRA stresses that PFAS do not “originate” with biosolids but from sources higher up the wastewater stream – the best place to intercept them.
Next: PFAS regulation in Vermont and indications — or lack thereof — of the likelihood that PFAS show up in public drinking water systems.
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