What is the impact of PFAS on sustainability? Let’s dig in.
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) have emerged as contaminants of concern globally. The investigation and cleanup of these chemicals have the potential to be a sort of pandemic to sustainability for a few reasons. We’ll dive deeper into that shortly, but first, let’s define what they are and their uses in our world today.
What are PFAS?
According to the National Toxicology Program, PFAS, are a large group of man-made compounds that are used globally to make everyday consumer products more resistant to stains, grease, and water. For example, these chemicals are used to keep food from sticking to cookware, make stain-resistant sofas and carpets, waterproof clothing and mattresses, and may also be used in some food packaging, as well as in some firefighting materials. Because they help reduce friction, they are also used in a variety of other industries, including aerospace, automotive, building and construction, and electronics.
As a class, PFAS contains thousands of chemicals. Humans are exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways. Ingestion—mainly through drinking water—is the primary way individuals or communities are exposed, but recent studies suggest that other exposure pathways, including inhalation and skin absorption, also contribute.
The production of these chemicals dates back to the 1940s. However, only recently have they emerged on the scene as a concern to human health and the environment.
What happens with PFAS in the environment?
Well, this is where the issue of the impact of PFAS on sustainability starts to get a little sticky.
PFAS owe their properties to the carbon-fluorine bond, which is one of the shortest and strongest chemical bonds known. This property also makes these chemicals—or the parts of them composed of C–F bonds—highly resistant to breakdown in the environment, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Their chemical structure is similar to the hydrocarbon backbone, except fluorine is substituted for Hydrogen in the backbone chain.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perhaps the two best-known PFAS, aren’t produced in the U.S. anymore. But they are the most widespread pollutants of concern from this chemical class, at least so far.
PFAS are highly water-soluble and resistant to degradation and hence widely present in the environment.
The regulatory status of PFAS
First off, the regulatory status is just now evolving. Yes, if you can believe these substances have been in use since the 1940s, and we’re just now thinking about regulating them? Yep!
Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent the proposed regulatory determination for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water to the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review. This step is an essential part of EPA’s extensive efforts under the PFAS Action Plan to help communities address PFAS nationwide.
According to the EPA, “due to their widespread use and persistence in the environment, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS. There is evidence that continued exposure above specific levels to certain PFAS may lead to adverse health effects.”
Some states are out ahead of the EPA in establishing a regulatory framework, setting regulatory standards down to the single-digit parts per trillion. California has recently lowered its notification levels from 14 parts per trillion (ppt) to 5.1 ppt for PFOA and from 13 ppt to 6.5 ppt for PFOS.
Challenges for assessment and cleanup of PFAS
The identification of the potential sources is wrapping up. These include airports; clothing, and textile, wire, plastics, and leather manufacturing; metal plating; semiconductor and photo imaging; as well as landfill leachate and wastewater biosolids.
The EPA has created a clearinghouse of PFAS chemicals with links to known chemical, physical, and other properties. They’ve also expanded existing analytical methods and are developing new ones to accurately test for additional PFAS in drinking water.
Assessment of some of the sites is underway. The lower regulatory standards and unique properties of PFAS present challenges for sample collection and laboratory analysis.
Most of the treatment options currently used for soil and water, such as carbon absorption for groundwater, do not destroy PFAS but transfer them to other media or reduce their mobility. Incineration is a possiblity but requires extremely high temperatures. The temperature varies depending on the specific PFAS but can reach as high as 1,400 degrees celsius. Higher temperatures equate to increased costs. There are a number of emerging technologies that hopefully will prove useful.
Just a bit on sustainability
Sustainability is a complex concept. The most often quoted definition comes from the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Sustainability commonly rests on three pillars: people, planet, and profits.
So, sustainability is a bit of a juggling act, or the capacity for the biosphere to coexist with human civilization.
What’s the impact of PFAS on sustainability?
With the current trend of setting ultra-low environmental standards, many sites with only a marginal role in terms of PFAS use to date will require cleanup. This could mean that we will find some exceedance of a PFAS standard at nearly every site tested. It’s easy to see that environmental management of all these sites may become unsustainable.
Sustainability is going to have to play a significant role in the evolution of remediation and environmental standards. With environmental standards reaching single-digit parts per trillion, it is going to be challenging to find sites without PFAS “impacts,” and the resources required to address these issues may have a significant impact on our society, the business community, and public entities.
To put the PFAS issue into perspective, consider the average BTEX plume from the corner gas station. With a regulatory standard of one part per billion for Benzene, the typical plume will extend 213 feet to the point of compliance. Now, for the PFAS plume with a regulatory standard of five parts per trillion, the plume will typically extend up to six miles! Compound that reality with the technical challenges associated with remediation of the PFAS, and we should start to realize the issue here.
Regarding the third pillar of sustainability, profits, one can’t help but wonder why, after nearly 80 years since PFAS were first discovered and made, we’re just now looking at regulating them? Trade secrets, ok, I get that. Eighty years… I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around this part.
According to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families…
“There are currently tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce in the U.S. and only a fraction of them have been tested for safety.
Under our nation’s key chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Environmental Protection Agency has banned only five chemicals.
In 2016, after a years-long legislative process in which Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and our partners took a leadership role, Congress passed a bipartisan update to TSCA called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (LCSA).
Since LCSA was signed into law, we have been working to protect American families’ health by advocating for EPA to implement the new law with the strength that Congress intended. For more detailed information, see our archive of information and comments to EPA on the act.”
As we’ve mentioned, there’s still a great deal of uncertainty regarding sustainability. It will be critical to incorporate sound sustainability analysis when developing environmental standards for PFAS, as well as to continue the journey towards more effective and affordable remedial technologies.
We hope you’ve found this article beneficial to your understanding of the issue, the impact of PFAS on sustainability. Please contact us if we can help with any of your environmental land restoration projects!