Tighter regulations regarding PFAS are inevitable: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Joe Biden has promised to designate the so-called ‘forever chemicals’ as a hazardous substance. The USEPA is also moving forward to set enforceable limits for some PFAS in drinking water - and similar regulations are afoot globally. To prepare for PFAS regulation, the first step is establishing a fact-based understanding of the risks and requirements, says our PFAS technical leader, Rosa Gwinn

Access to clean water is something many of us take for granted, particularly in developed economies. But the discovery of contamination by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively called PFAS, has raised questions about water safety.

In production since the 1940s, PFAS were widely used in manufacturing for their stain, grease, and water-resistant characteristics, leveraging their surfactant properties. Their broad applicability led to a widespread use in everything from pizza boxes to firefighting foam.

Once believed to be beneficial and benign, PFAS are now generating worldwide concern because some are persistent and toxic at very low concentrations. Unfortunately, some PFAS have been linked to infant developmental issues, weakened immunity, thyroid disease, cancer, and other health problems.

Many PFAS are highly soluble and mobile, meaning they can travel in surface water and groundwater, exposing animal and plant life along the way. Because perfluorinated chemicals are essentially inert, once they enter the environment, they can migrate without degrading. This means that PFAS often end up where they shouldn’t be: in drinking water, in biosolids used in agriculture, and accumulating in ecosystems. Some PFAS can build up in humans, and nearly all Americans have measurable PFAS in their blood.

Regulating PFAS contamination in water supplies

Action towards regulating the amount of PFAS in drinking water has already begun globally and is likely to accelerate as reports of occurrence rise. In the U.S., the Safe Drinking Water Act requires that once every five years the EPA issues a new list of unregulated contaminants to be monitored. Testing for 6 PFAS revealed in 2013-2015 that about six million people were drinking some PFAS in their water. A wider round of testing and for 29 PFAS is beginning soon as concerns rose that PFAS might be more widespread: almost 200 million Americans may have some PFAS in their drinking water. President Biden promised to set enforceable limits for PFAS during his campaign, and, in 2020, the EPA issued a PFAS Strategic Roadmap, focusing on limits on PFAS use, and accelerating toxicity studies and research.

The U.S. is not alone in taking action. Health authorities in Australia were among the first to address the issue, setting and continually reviewing health-based guidance on the amount of PFOS and PFOA a person can safely consume in drinking water. Water authorities across Australia are working with these government agencies to continue to assess the risks from PFAS, with a view to potentially setting up a PFAS Management Framework as regulations tighten. The European Parliament formally adopted a revised EU Drinking Water Directive that entered into force in January 2021 that sets a limit for total PFAS concentration, with stricter limits for 20 specific PFAS. Member States have 2 years to consider that for national legislation.

Staying ahead of the regulations: what water companies need to do to prepare

Although water companies aren't responsible for putting PFAS into water, wastewater and landfill leachate, they are increasingly being held responsible for removing it. To prepare for these incoming changes, they need to assess their liability and manage the risk. The likelihood of PFAS contamination is probable on sites where PFAS-containing products were manufactured, where firefighting foam containing PFAS was used, and where household products containing PFAS were landfilled. Downstream water sources can be at risk.

Approaches differ, but there is consensus that to be safe for humans, levels of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water should not exceed concentrations beyond parts per trillion, and the EPA recently issued non-enforcement drinking water limits that are even lower than that. With current technology, that is an unachievable ask.

Managing PFAS contamination poses unique challenges, not least because PFAS are so common. Within AECOM, we’ve been assessing PFAS since the early 2000s, when stricter regulations began evolving. The first systems we devised removed PFAS to safe levels, but increasingly, the focus is destroying PFAS because of the risks associated with long-term disposal.

Because some PFAS are highly resistant to degradation, conventional destruction technologies are stretched to their limit. Many methods can separate PFAS, but technology isn’t advanced enough to destroy them – yet. This is the driver behind our development of DE-FLUORO™, a destructive treatment technology that is currently in development with pilot trials being undertaken this year in the United States and Australia.

The best way of managing risk is to be prepared

The question of how and how much to regulate PFAS in drinking water has yet to be resolved- but it will be. Where regulators aren’t forcing industries to act now, they will do sooner or later. The force of public opinion is moving more quickly than regulations in some jurisdictions, with public groups in affected communities demanding PFAS-free water.

Knowledge is power and water companies need to know what they are faced with so that they can respond appropriately. Potable water suppliers need to assess their own systems, consider their own solutions, and work rapidly ahead of clear regulatory guidance. There will be no one size fits all solution, but options are available.