PFAS substances have been getting lots of attention lately, largely due to a growing body of evidence demonstrating their toxicity, as well as a resulting flurry of regulatory activity. With restrictions around the manufacture, importation, use, and disposal of PFAS substances set to tighten in coming years, it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what PFAS are, why PFAS substances are dangerous, and what to expect from new PFAS restrictions in the US and elsewhere.
What are PFAS?
Short for Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Substances, PFAS are a large and complex group of artificial fluorinated organic chemicals that offer resistance to light, temperature, water, and oil, as well as friction reduction. These properties have made PFAS substances useful as surface coatings that impart stain-proofing, water-proofing, non-stick, anti-reflective, anti-corrosive, and/or insulating qualities to a wide variety of materials.
Since their introduction in the mid-20th century, PFAS have been used extensively by aeronautical and aerospace industries, chemical and petrochemical industries, the automotive industry, and by manufacturers of a variety of goods, including leather, textiles, carpet, food packaging, semiconductors, electronics, machine components, solar panels, photo-imaging equipment, appliances, wood products, and many other products. PFAS are also commonly used as ingredients in paints, protective resins, cleaning agents, pesticides, and in some fire suppression foams.
Health and environmental concerns surrounding PFAS
While initially believed to be harmless, PFAS are now generally recognized as hazards to human health and to the environment. Research over the past few decades has shown that PFAS exposure is linked to a number of adverse health effects in humans and animals, including liver, thyroid, and kidney disease, high blood pressure, fertility and gestational problems, disruption to endocrine and immune system function, and several types of cancer. Additionally, PFAS are known to persist in the environment for long periods of time—so long that they are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals.” Historical underestimation of these risks led to uncontrolled PFAS discharges in previous decades, with the result that PFAS substances can now be found commonly in air, water, and soil throughout the US and world. As such, policymakers have begun to look at the issue of environmental PFAS contamination with greater urgency.
How to prepare for PFAS regulatory changes
Since the early 2000s, a growing awareness of health and safety risks associated with PFAS has resulted in increasing liabilities for the companies who deal with them. This has included several major lawsuits, voluntary phase-outs of certain PFAS substances, as well as forced cleanups. Additionally, efforts to curtail PFAS substances have intensified recently in the US, with a number of formal regulatory changes on the horizon that aim to reduce the manufacture and use of PFAS substances, and mitigate existing PFAS contamination. Proposed changes were outlined in a fact sheet released by the White House in late 2021, many of which will have potentially wide-ranging impacts on industrial facilities and municipal water systems.
Below, we’ve identified some actions you can take to prepare for new PFAS regulations:
Look out for new reporting requirements
PFAS are a complex family of thousands of compounds, and relatively few PFAS compounds are currently recognized as hazardous substances. But that is changing—and quickly. For reporting year 2021, the US EPA added three PFAS substances to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), including:
- Perfluorooctyl iodide
- Potassium perfluorooctanoate
- Silver perfluorooctanoate
These PFAS substances join a list of over 700 other TRI-listed substances already subject to annual reporting requirements. In short, the change means that US facilities who deal with these PFAS substances will need to comply with annual TRI reporting requirements beginning July 1, 2022. Affected facilities will need to supply information on any TRI-listed PFAS chemicals discharged to the environment and/or recovered through treatment.
Additionally, the US EPA proposed a new PFAS reporting requirement under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). If enacted as proposed, US entities who work with any of the 1,364 recognized PFAS substances will be required to deliver a TSCA report to the US EPA. Facilities must comply with reporting requirements if they manufactured, used, or imported PFAS substances at any point since 2011, and must include detail on use, production volumes, disposal, exposures, and hazards.
Prepare for higher waste management costs
There are a number of regulatory changes in motion that will strengthen liquid and solid waste discharge limitations in the next few years, with the effect that facilities will likely need to expand wastewater treatment capabilities to meet new regulatory limits for PFAS content in liquid waste streams, and/or find ways to phase PFAS out of production.
Among these is the development of industry-specific PFAS effluent limitations under the US EPA’s Preliminary Plan 15. Due for release by the end of 2024, the new effluent guidelines will likely place stronger limitations on waste discharges from PFAS manufacturers, as well as the organic chemical, plastics, synthetics, and metal finishing industries. New effluent limits are also under consideration for pulp and paper, textile, and carpet manufacturers as well.
Additionally, as of October 2021, the US EPA moved to add four new PFAS substances as “hazardous constituents” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), including:
- Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
- Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)
- Perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS)
- GenX, also known as hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA)
The proposed change would mean that any facilities that deal with PFOA, PFOS, PFBS, or GenX substances will be subject to more stringent discharge regulations governing wastewater treatment and waste management.
Review public water testing and monitoring compliance
Industrial facilities aren’t the only ones subject to new restrictions around PFAS substances, as public water systems (PWSs), too, will need to adapt. Notably, the US EPA published an updated Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) in late 2021. This rule requires that PWSs participate in testing and monitoring activities regarding a list of specific contaminants. After this revision cycle, PWSs will be responsible for monitoring an additional 23 new PFAS substances for the 2023 to 2025 reporting period. To prepare for the changes, PWS facilities should review the revised rule and provided resources, which include informational webinars.
Find out if your PWS qualifies for support funds
Municipal water treatment facilities should watch for financial support opportunities afforded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in November 2021. The Act allocates $10B for loan and grant programs to upgrade public water infrastructure for removal of PFAS (and other emerging contaminants) from drinking water. PWSs serving small and disadvantaged communities should take note in particular, as $5B of the allocated funds are set aside for their use in implementing point-of-entry and point-of-use filtration systems.
Evaluate available PFAS treatment technologies
At this time, the US EPA is conducting ongoing toxicity assessments of PFAS substances (particularly PFBA, PFHxA, PFHxS, PFNA, and PFDA), and is also in the process of developing a national testing strategy to group and prioritize PFAS substances. It is likely that these activities will inform future regulatory changes. Additionally, new state-level initiatives are also popping up with the goal to phase out PFAS substances. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to expect that restrictions around the use and disposal of PFAS substances will continue to grow in the coming years.
We recommend that facilities take steps now in order to prevent costly issues like remediation and non-compliance fines down the road. One way to do so is to get familiar with water and wastewater treatment technologies appropriate for separation and removal of PFAS chemicals. At this time, recommended PFAS removal technologies for drinking water applications include anion ion exchange (IX), high pressure membrane filtration, and certain types of granular activated carbon filters specifically designed for PFAS removal. For PFAS removal in wastewater treatment contexts, there is a broader field of recommended technologies, including all those mentioned above, as well as certain types of coagulation and oxidation.
How can SAMCO help?
SAMCO has over 40 years’ experience custom-designing and manufacturing water treatment and wastewater treatment systems, so please feel free to reach out to us with your questions. For more information or to get in touch, contact us here. You can also visit our website to set up a call with an engineer or request a quote. We can walk you through the steps for developing the proper solution and realistic cost for a separation or wastewater treatment system to meet your PFAS removal needs.
For more articles on water and wastewater treatment, head on over to our blog. Some that might be of interest to you include:
- What Is an Industrial Water Treatment System and How Does It Work?
- Does Your Plant Need an Industrial Water Treatment System?
- Seven Ways Your Facility Isn’t Meeting Effluent Regulations and How to Solve Them
- The Importance of Wastewater Treatment for Your Facility: Is it Necessary?
- What Is a Wastewater Treatability Study and How Does It Work?
- The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act: How Will It Affect You?
- How Does Lead Get into Drinking Water? How Can Local Municipalities Remove It?