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Solutions for addressing PFAS contaminated drinking water

By Michael Bartlett

Posted on December 12th, 2019

For environmental and public health agencies, one concern with PFAS is that they dissolve in water, which combined with their chemical properties, makes removing the chemicals through commonly used adsorbent technologies challenging and nearly impossible.

Detected in drinking water supplies across the country, the cancer-causing nonpolymer per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have been in the news a lot lately. Because the molecules of PFAS substances contain tough carbon-fluorine bonds which generally increase their persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity, exposure to some of these chemicals have been linked to harmful health effects. PFAS can harm our body even if it is present at extremely low levels in our drinking water. The health conditions associated with PFAS exposure include cancer, liver and kidney damage, hormone disruption, immune system disorders, and developmental disorders in newborns.

These compounds are generally not removed by common water treatment methods and technologies, meaning they remain in both biosolids and treated wastewater. Additionally, treated wastewater is often discharged to surface water, which may be a drinking water supply. Because these chemicals are not easily degraded by physical or chemical mechanisms once in the environment, PFAS mass is moved from one source to another and eventually reports to water. The number of American communities confirming PFAS contaminated drinking water is growing at an alarming rate, and as of May 2020, there are 1,582 places across the 49 states that are known to have contaminated drinking water. The highest levels of PFAS were detected in major metropolitan areas of Miami, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and also the northern New Jersey suburbs of the New York city.

Steps to reduce exposure to PFAS contaminated water

If you live near the sites of PFAS contamination, you need to take certain steps to reduce your risk of PFAS exposure, which include:

  • Use alternative source or treated water for drinking, cooking food, brushing teeth, or any other activity in which water may be swallowed.
  • Avoid boiling water as it may concentrate these chemicals.

EPA has found treatment technologies to remove PFAS from drinking water

The need for remediation of PFAS in drinking water is growing as a result of more regulatory attention to this class of highly persistent, mobile in groundwater, and bioaccumulative contaminants.

Using conventional drinking water treatment technologies at water treatment facilities may trap the chemicals, but they are vulnerable to clogging, and they collect the PFAS, which then needs to be disposed of. Now, researchers and chemists are not only developing new adsorbents that better target PFAS and don't clog as often, but also design innovative methods to completely destroy the molecules rather than merely sequestering them.

Accumulation of PFAS in the human body can have adverse health effects. In response, EPA researchers have been studying a variety of technologies to determine which methods work best to remove PFAS from drinking water.

Certain treatment technologies have been found to remove PFAS from drinking water. These technologies include:

  • Activated carbon treatment. Commonly used to adsorb natural organic compounds, synthetic organic chemicals, taste and odor compounds in drinking water treatment systems, activated carbon treatment can also be effective in removing longer chain PFOS compounds. Activated carbon is a porous carbon material that provides a large surface area to which contaminants may absorb. PFAS chemicals stick to the small pieces of carbon as the water passes through. Another type of activated carbon treatment is granulated activated carbon. Typically the least-expensive PFAS treatment options, granulated activated carbon is made from organic materials with high carbon contents such as wood, lignite, and coal, and has been shown to effectively remove longer-chain PFAS from drinking water when it is used in a flow-through filter mode after particulates have already been removed.
  • Ion exchange resins. This method is using as a treatment process a special ion exchange material (commercial resins or petrochemical compounds) normally in the form of small (0.5-1 mm diameter) porous beads. The trapping of ions occurs with concomitant releasing of other ions of a similar charge, in a process known as ion-exchange. However, the sorption rates depend on polymer matrix and porosity. There are multiple types of ion-exchange resin, the most commercial resins being made of polystyrene sulfonate.
  • Nanofiltration and reverse osmosis. Nanofiltration uses filters with pore sizes around 0.001 microns and a high water flux to filter PFAS, and reverse osmosis is based on a semi-permeable membrane to allow osmotic pressure to retain PFAS. Nanomembrane filtration removes PFAS compounds, based primarily on size-exclusion. Both reverse osmosis and nanofiltration are generally effective for removing PFAS compounds. In most cases, reverse osmosis has achieved better than 99 percent removals of PFAS from drinking water and 90 percent removal from some wastewater.

These treatment technologies reviewed by the EPA can be used in drinking water treatment facilities, in water systems in hospitals or individual buildings, or even in homes at the point-of-entry, where water enters the home, or the point-of-use, such as in a kitchen sink or a shower.

PFAS chemicals subject to data collection, studies, and risk assessments

Although there are several technologies engineered carefully with the consideration of specific wastewater chemistry, co-contaminant removals, and the pros and the cons of these treatment options, they are challenged because the carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest chemical bonds ever created. Multiple ionic states, variable isomers, differing alkyl group, are among factors specifically challenging for PFAS remediation.

Consequently, PFAS chemicals will be subject to data collection, studies, risk assessments, and possible regulations, so product- and waste-reduction practices should be considered immediately to reduce any potential consequences. Despite posing massive risks to public health they are not included in any major environmental laws, states and local communities being left without a clear plan to end their harmful exposures. Public health advocates and environmentalists say that the PFAS issue requires a national drinking water maximum contaminant level under the Safe Drinking Water Act specifications.

Legal claims resulting from PFAS chemicals in your drinking water

Blood tests for PFAS may provide information on how the levels vary among different populations. The data from these studies can also help community members who were not tested to estimate their likely blood PFAS level.

If your water has been contaminated by PFAS chemicals, and you have developed a serious health condition like kidney, testicular, pancreatic cancer, testicular cancer, bladder cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, neuroendocrine tumors, and prostate cancer, due to PFAS exposure you may file a claim for monetary compensation.