What You Need to Know About PFAS

February 20, 2020
PFAS are present in some firefighting foam

If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the past couple of years, you’ve probably become increasingly aware of one of the hottest topics in the water sector: PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The ongoing discourse around PFAS brings up many questions about what they are exactly, how concerned we should be about them, and how they even get into our waterways, food and bodies in the first place.

At last year’s WEFTEC conference, AdEdge’s own Chris Savino, regional sales manager, and Tyler Butel, technical sales director, sat down with the Water Environment Federation’s Travis Loop to get to the bottom of these questions and more. Read on for some of the key takeaways from the conversation.

What are PFAS and where are they found?

PFAS are a family of man-made chemical compounds comprised of very strong bonds of fluorine and carbon. PFOA and PFOS are the two most well-known PFAS compounds, but PFAS encompasses many other chemicals as well.

Originating back to the 1940s, PFAS are present in all sorts of today’s consumer goods and materials, including Teflon, Scotchguard, textiles, firefighting foam and hamburger wrappers.

What’s the concern about PFAS?

Because they’re long-chain compounds, PFAS chemicals can take a long time to break down. This means that “once they’re manufactured and once they’re in the environment, there’s nothing that degrades them,” Savino said.

PFAS can get into the food chain through contaminated soil or water as well as food packaging and processing equipment. The chemicals bioaccumulate, meaning they can increase in concentration in your body over time, Butel added.

Butel listed some of the studied health risks of PFOA and PFOS compounds:

  • Higher than normal incidence of cancer
  • Liver enlargement
  • Hormonal changes
  • Thyroid function
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Reduced birth weight
  • Structural defects
  • Increased neonatal deformities

Butel said the good news is that the longer chain compounds linked to these health risks have been curtailed, and new PFAS compounds are shorter chain and take less time to degrade. Still, he said, we don’t yet know a lot about the health risks of these PFAS compounds because they haven’t been properly studied yet.

“I think as a general statement, the further a compound is away from what nature would make, the more likely we should be concerned about the impacts it has to humans. I think it’s smart to err on the side of caution that any exposure to PFAS is bad exposure,” Butel said.

How do PFAS compounds get into water and how is it regulated?

PFAS commonly get into groundwater through discharge from industrial sites. Because the compounds are nearly indestructible, they can make it downstream through treatment plants if they aren’t treating for PFAS properly.

Levels of PFAS in the groundwater are especially high around areas like military bases, where PFOA is abundant in firefighting spray used during training.

So what levels of PFAS are allowed in drinking water? The EPA’s current standard is a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, but there is no federally mandated maximum contaminant level (MCL). In response, some states have taken it upon themselves to set their own advisory levels and mandates.

How do you remove PFAS from water?

The two primary treatment methods for removing PFAS from water are granular activated carbon (GAC) and ion exchange resins, Savino said. While GAC systems are lower in cost, they require a much larger system with higher contact time between the carbon media and the water. On the other hand, systems using ion exchange resins require less contact time and can have a smaller footprint.

Each of these methods comes with a considerable amount of the used media, which can’t simply be sent off to a landfill. Savino said that instead, you have to send the spent media to be incinerated at levels upwards of 1,100 degrees Celsius to destroy the compounds.

As utilities continue to adjust to ever-changing regulations around PFAS unique to their own states, companies with a passion for clean water like AdEdge can help them find a custom solution to best fit their needs.


(Image by Lightfield Studios from Adobe Stock)

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