What They Are: PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) comprise a group of highly fluorinated manmade compounds that are showing up in drinking water supplies around the country. They are resistant to heat, water and oil, as well as to chemical breakdown. Because of these properties, PFASs have been used for decades as surface protection in a wide range of consumer products including carpets, clothing, cookware and food industry paper products such as pizza boxes and sandwich wrappers. PFASs are also present in foam used for fighting fires involving flammable or combustible liquids, such as oil and gasoline. Additionally, mist suppressants for metal plating operations may contain PFASs.
Where They Are in the Environment: PFASs are found at industrial sites where the chemicals were manufactured or used. They are also associated with military bases, civilian airfields and petroleum product facilities where firefighting foam was used or stored. Due to their widespread use, relatively high solubility and resistance to standard treatment technologies, PFASs are sometimes present in wastewater treatment plant effluent, sludge and bio-solids. PFASs may be present in landfill leachate as well.
How They Are Regulated: Until recently, PFASs have not been widely regulated. This is changing at both the federal and state levels. In fact, during his confirmation hearing, EPA Administrator Pruitt stated that PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), one of the most prevalent forms of PFAS, “needs to be addressed quickly.”
PFOA and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) are the two most well-known PFASs and are the primary focus of regulatory attention. These compounds have been found in fish and other wildlife. PFOA and PFOS have also been detected in human blood samples. It is reported that exposure to these chemicals may cause a variety of adverse health effects. The manufacture of PFOA and PFOS has been phased out in the United States, but stockpiled materials containing the chemicals remain in use. Other PFAS compounds continue to be manufactured and used.
In May 2016, EPA issued a non-binding drinking water health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, either singly or combined. EPA defines this as the concentration of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water below which adverse health effects are not anticipated to occur over a lifetime of exposure. EPA’s 2016 health advisory level is a decrease from its 2009 provisional drinking water health advisories for PFOA (400 ppt) and PFOS (200 ppt), and follows EPA’s 2012 addition of PFOA and PFOS to the list of unregulated contaminants for which public water systems were required to test between January 2013 and December 2015 (i.e., EPA’s third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule or UCMR 3).
A number of states have incorporated EPA’s 2016 advisory level, while others have adopted their own more stringent (e.g., Vermont < 20 ppt) or less stringent (e.g., Minnesota 300 ppt) advisory levels. In addition, states such as Alaska, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Texas and Vermont have proposed or adopted soil, groundwater and/or surface water cleanup levels for PFOA and PFOS. Vermont regulates waste with > 20 ppt PFOA and PFOS as hazardous. New Jersey is considering a 14 ppt PFOA drinking water maximum contaminant level. In California, PFOA and PFOS are proposed for listing under Proposition 65 as developmental or reproductive toxicants. Likewise, PFASs in carpets and indoor upholstery are being evaluated as a possible Priority Product under California’s Safer Consumer Products law. Washington state’s Children’s Safe Products Act Reporting Rule requires manufacturer notification if a children’s product sold in the state contains PFOS. Rulemaking to add PFOA to the list of chemicals covered under the rule is ongoing.
What You Can Expect to Hear: According to an August 2016 Harvard University study analyzing drinking water sampled between January 2013 and December 2015, 66 public water supplies serving 6 million people had at least one sample at or above EPA’s 70 ppt health advisory level, with PFOA concentrations as high as 349 ppt and PFOS concentrations as high as 1800 ppt. The study also found that 75 percent of the PFASs detected in drinking water come from 13 states – Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
There have already been a number of high-profile PFAS groundwater and drinking water contamination cases. In February 2017, a PFOA manufacturer agreed to a $670 million settlement, the largest known payment to date related to this chemical. Given the increasing regulatory scrutiny, drinking water providers as well as all parties associated with the generation, use and disposal of PFASs should anticipate hearing more about them in the months and years ahead.