“Forever” chemicals are found in items we use every day. They are also in nearby groundwater sources, perhaps even in your drinking water. We’re talking about a group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also more commonly referred to as “PFAS” or “PFOA” and if you haven’t heard about them, read on.
Several decades ago, a handful of large companies developed chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl, that were intended to make life easier, cleaner, and more advanced. They succeeded, but at a cost.
The development of PFAS/PFOA compounds was break-through technology at the time and they quick found uses in numerous industrial processes. Unfortunately, with the benefit of time, we now know that these compounds are more harmful than helpful and addressing their cleanup has become a top priority at the federal and state levels.
Introduction to PFAS Forever Chemicals
The family of PFAS chemicals is large, and they can be found in numerous products intended to be resistant to stains, water, and grease. This includes furniture, carpeting, clothing, food packaging, and cookware. You can find them in surface coating sprays, on kitchen pans and utensils, and in water-repellant clothing. Firefighters use foam containing PFAS to combat fires, and various industries, like metal platers, use the chemical compounds in their manufacturing processes.
The harmful properties of PFAS are concerning:
• PFAS remains in the environment when released during the manufacturing process or when items containing PFAS are thrown away and the chemicals leach into soil or groundwater
• PFAS can accumulate in the body over time if people use products containing PFAS or are exposed to the production of these chemicals over time
• PFAS can be toxic at relatively low concentrations
What Is the Federal Government Doing About PFAS?
Since the early 2000s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“U.S. EPA”) has prohibited the manufacture and importation of items containing PFAS to the United States. Unfortunately, other countries employ different environmental standards and some of our imported products may still contain PFAS.
Under U.S. EPA’s PFOA Stewardship Program, eight major PFAS producers have eliminated PFOA and other PFAS substances from their products and factory emissions. However, manufacturers are developing replacement chemicals that are still in the PFAS family that must be studied and monitored as well.
U.S. EPA has also issued regulations, known as Significant New Use Rules, that require PFAS manufacturers and processors to notify U.S. EPA of any new uses of these chemicals before they are released into the public.
U.S. EPA has also developed a New Chemicals program to review proposed alternative chemicals before they enter the marketplace and study the potential health issues to prevent unreasonable risks.
According to the U.S. EPA’s official website, it has recently taken additional steps to address the widespread contamination:
• On February 20, 2020, the agency proposed a supplemental Significant New Use Rule to ensure that it is notified before anyone begins or resumes using PFAS chemical substances as part of surface coatings on articles.
• In July 2020, it strengthened the regulation of PFAS by requiring notice and U.S. EPA review before allowing the use or importation of PFAS that have been phased out in the United States.
• On December 10, 2020, it issued a draft guidance for public comment stating which imported products are covered by the July 2020 final rule, that prohibits companies from creating, importing, processing, or using PFAS without advance review and approval.
What Is California Doing About PFAS?
As usual, California is on the cutting-edge of environmental issues and taking a stance against PFAS manufacture, use, and distribution. The State is also aggressively addressing the past use and related contamination. In addition to the U.S. EPA’s rules, California is pushing for very low acceptable levels of PFAS state-wide, including ordering most of California’s metal platers to perform investigations and report about their respective levels of PFAS.
California’s Water Boards have implemented drinking water treatments to address PFAS contamination. They have also set lower acceptable toxicity thresholds than the federal government to provide additional protection for California’s citizens. Using such treatments as reverse osmosis, and different types of activated carbon, they are seeing success rates approaching 99% removal. However, these treatments are expensive, maybe even cost-prohibitive.
Also in California, the PFAS family of chemicals have been designated as hazardous substances, and interim groundwater cleanup recommendations have been developed. In early 2019, the Water Boards established specific investigation sites that will be monitored and treated under new regulations.
California also passed legislation in 2020 to address PFAS further:
• The State Water Resources Control Board can order a public water system to monitor for PFAS and report all results
• Water systems must report confirmed findings of PFAS in the water source to their customers.
• If the amount of chemicals exceed the required Notification Level, the water system must report to the local governing board.
• If the amount of chemicals exceed the stated Response Level, the water source must be taken out of use, or the agency must provide public notification within 30 days according to law.
California legislators intend to protect residents in the coming years by: