A Growing Concern in Drinking Water: Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs)
More comprehensive monitoring and/or regulations may be in the future for Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs), as well as increased mitigation of potential releases into the environment or water supply. The increased concern about PFCs comes as three significant groundwater supply sources in New Hampshire were found to be contaminated over health standards with PFCs. Similarly, sampling has discovered PFCs in wells across the USA, including Minnesota, in excess of health standards.
What are PFCs?
PFCs are a large group of chemicals used in industrial processes and consumer products. They are widely used in firefighting compounds and to make carpets, clothing, fabrics, and other materials more resistant to stains, grease, and water. The most widely studied fluorinated organic chemicals include Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). PFOA is used in Teflon, firefighting foams, cleaners, car wash products, cosmetics, greases and lubricants, paints, polishes, adhesives and photographic films. PFCs are also sometimes referred to as PFAFs which refer to Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl substances.
How do PFCs Enter Groundwater?
PFCs are water-soluble and can be released into the environment through air emissions of industrial facilities, releases from landfills or dump sites, discharges from wastewater treatment plants, street and stormwater runoff, and the release of aqueous firefighting foams. Contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific source, such as an industrial facility where these chemicals were produced or used in other processes.
The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services says the main sources of contamination in the three cases identified include: air emissions from nearby industrial facilities which use PFCs; and past releases of PFCs from fire-fighting training operations. Air emissions containing PFCs are dispersed in the air and are deposited on the surrounding soils. Rains and melting snow can cause PFCs to travel through soil and eventually enter the groundwater supply.
Current USEPA Regulations
Each of the affected New Hampshire groundwater supply sources has concentrations greater than the current health advisory standards. In May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) established the health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (0.07 µg/L) for combined PFOA and PFOS to provide a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure to PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. The health advisories for PFOA and PFOS were based on an assessment of the latest peer-reviewed science to provide information on the health risks of these chemicals in drinking water.
PFOA and PFOS are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). However, PFOA and PFOS were included in the Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 3) list established by USEPA along with four other PFCs.
UCMR3 - Six Perfluorinated Compounds
Risk of Human Exposure
The 0.07 µg/L health advisory for combined PFOA and PFOS is based on the best available peer-reviewed studies of the effects on laboratory animals and epidemiological studies of human populations that have been exposed.
Research indicates that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health impacts, including developmental issues to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants, and cancer, as well as affecting the immune system and thyroid.
AE2S will continue to monitor for changes to PFCs regulations and will share additional information as it becomes available. If you have questions about PFCs and the potential risks to your water system, contact Nate Weisenburger, AE2S Water Practice Leader, at Nate.Weisenburger@ae2s.com.