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June 08, 2018
PFAS chemicals spotlighted at EPA summit

The EPA recently sponsored what it called a “historic summit” to provide active engagement and actions to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

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“The National Leadership Summit on PFAS provided an unprecedented opportunity for stakeholders to share vital information and best practices regarding PFAS challenges across the nation,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “EPA will utilize the information discussed at the historic summit, along with upcoming visits to affected communities, to develop a National PFAS Management Plan. The Agency will also take concrete actions to ensure PFAS is thoroughly addressed and all Americans have access to clean and safe drinking water.”

3,000 distinct substances

Introduced in the United States in the 1940s, PFASs are a group of man-made chemicals now comprising more than 3,000 distinct substances; the EPA notes that nearly 900 new PFAS chemicals have come through EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) program since 2006. Many PFAS chemicals have very different properties and product applications. For example, chemicals in one class of PFAS called fluoropolymers are durable, stable, and inert and are used in the manufacture of medical devices, electronics, automotive and aerospace parts, and semiconductors. Another PFAS class called fluororepellents and fluorosurfactants offer water/oil repellency, grease/soil resistance, surface modification and protection, and wetting and leveling; these PFASs are applied to medical garments, carpets, textiles, first responder and military gear, and paints and coatings.

No federal water regulations

Chemicals with the properties that make PFAS substances so useful are for the same reasons very persistent in the environment and in the human body; there is evidence that exposure to PFASs can lead to adverse human health effects.

While PFAS chemicals have been found in the environment, including in sources of drinking water, there is currently no requirement under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to limit these substances in drinking water and no Clean Water Act (CWA) requirement to limit their discharge to water bodies. The Agency has, however, taken several nonregulatory actions. In its Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, issued in 2012, the EPA listed six PFASs for monitoring, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), two PFASs of significant concern.  Also in 2012, the Agency issued a drinking water health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS.

Industry has also responded to the risk. For example, between 2000 and 2002, PFOS was voluntarily phased out of production in the United States by its primary manufacturer. In 2006, eight major companies voluntarily agreed to phase out their global production of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals; the EPA notes that there remain a limited number of ongoing uses.

Utility’s federal wish list

At the summit, several drinking water officials gave their views on the extent of the PFAS challenge and how to address it. For example, Carel Vandermeyden, director of engineering with the Cape Fear, North Carolina, Public Utility Authority, reported that PFAS chemicals have been detected in the area’s source and drinking water, prompting thousands of calls from concerned customers. The Authority took several actions, including increasing sampling, providing water to customers at no cost, and removing 50 million gallons of water containing the contaminants from an aquifer storage/recovery well.

According to Vandermeyden, the federal government can assist drinking water providers dealing with PFAS in multiple ways, including:

  • Increasing toxicology research;
  • Identifying which subgroups of PFAS compounds warrant monitoring and potentially mandatory controls; 
  • Describing how consumers can limit their exposure to PFAS from all sources;
  • Building awareness that detection does not equal risk of harm;
  • Identifying reliable performance expectations for treatment technologies;
  • Supporting CWA controls (discharge permits, pretreatment permitting);
  • Preventing entry into commerce of those PFAS compounds that will subsequently pose a risk via drinking water;
  • Supporting drinking water primacy agencies; and
  • Providing adequate water infrastructure funding.

Vandermeyden’s presentation and other materials from the summit are here.

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