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Knowledge is power: why water companies need to assess and manage their PFAS liability risk

Tighter regulations regarding PFAS are inevitable: U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to designate the so-called ‘forever chemicals’ as a hazardous substance and to set enforceable limits for 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.

Once believed to be beneficial and benign, PFAS are now generating worldwide concern because of 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.

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.

Often called ‘forever chemicals’ because of their chemical stability, 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 its been found that 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 water contamination rise. In the U.S., the Safe Drinking Water Act requires that once every five years the Environmental Protection Agency issues a new list of unregulated contaminants to be monitored. This revealed in 2013-2015 that about six million people were drinking PFAS in their water. A wider round of testing in 2019 by a non-government entity revealed that the problem is more widespread: almost 200 million Americans had PFAS in their water supply. President Biden made a campaign promise to set enforceable limits for PFAS in the Safe Drinking Water Act, prioritize substitutes through procurement, and accelerate 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 health-based guidance on the amount of PFOS and PFOA a person can safely consume in drinking water that is continually reviewed. 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 twenty specified PFAS compounds. Member States have 2 years to transpose that into national legislation.

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

Although water companies weren’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. With current technology, that is a steep 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 after the identification of PFOS in polar bear samples in Norway. The first systems we devised sought to remove PFAS to safe levels, but today the focus is on methods that destroy PFAS rather than just removing it because of the risks associated with long-term disposal.

Because of PFAS resistance to degradation, conventional 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 answered - 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.