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PFAS, or Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, comprise a complex family of more than 10,000 synthetic chemicals that are widely used in everyday products due to their resistance to water, grease, and stains. These chemicals have been utilized for decades in a range of applications, including non-stick cookware, water-repellent fabrics, and firefighting foams.

Though highly valuable for these purposes, growing evidence points to potential health risks associated with PFAS exposure and their persistence in the environment. As they are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals,” due to their inability to break down naturally, concerns over their impact on both human health and the environment have led to increased scrutiny and regulation.

PFAS Cycle
Click image for detailed version

What are PFAS Chemicals?

  • Per and Poly Fluoroalkyl Substances
  • Group of over 10,000 fluorinated organic chemicals
  • Emerging Contaminant
  • Become engrained in almost everything we use

Where are PFAS Used?

Used to make products more heat resistant, stain-resistant, waterproof and/or nonstick as well as help reduce friction in certain products.
  • Fire-fighting foams
  • Fabric surface protectants
  • Upholstered furniture & carpets
  • Cleaning products
  • Pesticide formulations
  • Non-stick cookware
  • Electronic devices
  • Some food takeout containers
  • Paint & building materials

Potential Health Impacts

  • Reproductive effects
  • Developmental effects
  • Effects on the immune system (antibody production)
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Increased cholesterol/risk of obesity

Accumulate and stay in the body.

Impacts can occur at fairly low concentrations.

Final Regulation

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized the first ever drinking water regulations for six PFAS chemicals. The final rule sets a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) of zero and a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 4.0 Parts per Trillion (ppt) for both PFOS and PFOA. The rule also sets individual MCLGs and MCLs of 10 ppt for PFHsS, PFNA, and HFPO-DA (GenX).

EPA also proposed a Hazard Index approach, as described below, toward the regulation of a mixture of four PFAS chemicals: PFHxS, HFPO-DA (GenX), PFNA, and PFBS. The finalized regulatory framework is based on running annual average of samples, which is similar to the compliance methodology for disinfection by-products.

Hazard Index

Health Based Water Concentration (HBWC)

Levels protective of health effects over a lifetime of exposure, including sensitive populations and life stages.

Hazard Quotient

Ratio of potential exposure to a substance and the level at which no health effects are expected (HBWC).

Hazard Index (HI)

Sum of component Hazard Quotients (HQs), which are calculated by dividing the measured regulated PFAS component contaminant concentration in water by the associated Health Based Water Concentration.

A hazard index calculation greater than 1 would trigger a violation and corresponding regulatory enforcement action.

Hazard Index equation
Hazard Index equation
Hazard Index equation
Hazard Index equation

Treatment Technologies

Considerations for selecting a treatment solution:

• Space available

• Pretreatment requirements

• Removal effectiveness

• Capital investment

• Operating costs

• Disposal of waste/media

Granular Activated Carbon (GAC)

Removal Mechanism:
PFAS compounds absorb to the porous carbon particles
  • Most proven PFAS treatment technology
  • Removal effectiveness affected by other water quality parameters such as Total Organic Carbon (TOC)
  • GAC is typically a single use product and requires disposal once breakthrough has occurred
  • Less effective for some PFAS, such as short-chain
  • GAC regeneration and carbon disposal is a potential pollution concern
  • Regenerated GAC can not be utilized in drinking water
  • Relatively large equipment footprint

Ion Exchange (IX)

Removal Mechanism:
Positively charged resins/polymers bind the negatively charged PFAS (and other) compounds
  • Can be specialized for specific PFAS compounds
  • Most IX resins used for PFAS are single use media due to difficulties achieving effective regeneration
  • Other IX resins are being promoted as effective for onsite regeneration using proprietary regeneration processes
  • Proprietary resins and limited suppliers can increase costs
  • Reduced equipment footprint

Reverse Osmosis (RO)

Removal Mechanism:
Contaminated water is pressurized and forced through a semipermeable membrane that filters out PFAS (and other contaminants)
  • Best broad spectrum PFAS removal but most costly treatment solution
  • The PFAS is concentrated into a brine waste stream
  • Moderate equipment footprint
  • Increased energy and chemical costs
  • Disposal of waste brine stream can be difficult

Treatment Residuals Issues

PFAS accumulating in treatment residuals also presents challenges.  Options for treatment residuals are provided below:

  • GAC – Spent Media Incinerated/Landfilled
  • Ion Exchange – Spent Media Incinerated/Landfilled
  • RO – Brine Sent to Sanitary Sewer or Landfilled

Future regulatory actions not under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) may have a bearing on future disposal options.

PFAS Resources

The Update news regarding US water related legislative news
The Update is a monthly newsletter exclusively focused on U.S. water news, encompassing regulatory compliance and political developments.

PFAS Articles from The Update

RSS PFAS – The Update – AE2S
  • Rule Finalized to Clean Up PFAS Contamination
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is taking another step in its efforts to protect people from the health risks posed by exposure to “forever chemicals” in communities across the country. Exposure to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has been linked to cancers, impacts to the liver and heart, and immune and developmental damage to infants […]
  • First-Ever PFAS National Drinking Water Standard Issued
    On April 10th, following the consideration of comments received on the proposed rule, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the first-ever national, legally enforceable drinking water standard to protect communities from exposure to harmful per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The final rule represents the most significant step to protect public health under the USEPA PFAS Strategic Roadmap. […]
  • PFAS Test Order Issued to 3M Company and Wacker Chemical Corp.
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USPEA) has issued the fourth Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) test order requiring testing on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under USEPA’s National PFAS Testing Strategy.  This action orders the 3M Company and Wacker Chemical Corporation to conduct and submit testing on the physical-chemical properties of 2-(N-Methylperfluoro-1-octanesulfonamido) ethanol (NMeFOSE), including testing […]
  • Proposed Rules for PFAS and Other Emerging Chemicals of Concern
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) announced the latest efforts to protect communities and the environment from the health risks posed by certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are long-lasting chemicals that break down very slowly over time, and they have been used in many different consumer, commercial, and industrial products. USEPA proposes two […]
  • New Year Brings New PFAS Regulations
    The new year ushered in a slew of new regulations on “forever chemicals” in states, as well as the anticipated finalization of the proposed drinking water regulation at the Federal level. Safe Drinking Water Act Standards for PFAS U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) intends to finalize new drinking water standards for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances […]
  • Rule Finalized to Require Enhanced PFAS Reporting to Toxics Release Inventory
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) finalized a rule that improves reporting on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). USEPA eliminated an exemption that allowed facilities to avoid reporting information on PFAS when those chemicals were used in small concentrations. The so-called “forever chemicals” are used at low concentrations in […]
Drinking Water Practice - AE2S
Nate Weisenburger, PE, P Eng, ENV-SP
(406) 268-0626