Local activism can lead to new regulations, state and federal laws and better corporate citizenship.
In 2016 the Colorado health department announced the presence of cancer-causing chemicals in drinking water in Fountain, Colo., just outside Colorado Springs. Tests by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that nearby military bases had been leaching toxic chemicals, including substances known as PFASs, into drinking water for decades, potentially contributing to higher-than-normal rates of cancer. The Department of Defense has since admitted their responsibility for at least 55 drinking-water site contaminations worldwide, and the EPA has announced new plans to set drinking-water limits for PFASs by the end of the year.
What is a PFAS?
Basic Information on PFAS
What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940s. PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.
PFAS can be found in:
- Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
- Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
- Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
- Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
- Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time.
Certain PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States as a result of phase outs including the PFOA Stewardship Program in which eight major chemical manufacturers agreed to eliminate the use of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals in their products and as emissions from their facilities. Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, they are still produced internationally and can be imported into the United States in consumer goods such as carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber and plastics.
Why are PFAS important?
PFAS are found in a wide range of consumer products that people use daily such as cookware, pizza boxes and stain repellants. Most people have been exposed to PFAS. Certain PFAS can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. The most-studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS. Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animals. The most consistent findings are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:
- low infant birth weights,
- effects on the immune system,
- cancer (for PFOA), and
- thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).
What is the difference between PFOA, PFOS and GenX and other replacement PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s, and are (or have been) found in many consumer products like cookware, food packaging, and stain repellants. PFAS manufacturing and processing facilities, airports, and military installations that use firefighting foams are some of the main sources of PFAS. PFAS may be released into the air, soil, and water, including sources of drinking water. PFOA and PFOS are the most studied PFAS chemicals and have been voluntarily phased out by industry, though they are still persistent in the environment. There are many other PFAS, including GenX chemicals and PFBS in use throughout our economy.
GenX is a trade name for a technology that is used to make high performance fluoropolymers (e.g., some nonstick coatings) without the use of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). HFPO dimer acid and its ammonium salt are the major chemicals associated with the GenX technology. GenX chemicals have been found in surface water, groundwater, finished drinking water, rainwater, and air emissions in some areas.
As part of EPA’s draft toxicity assessment, the agency has developed draft oral reference doses (RfDs) for GenX chemicals and PFBS. Learn more about EPA’s draft toxicity assessment on GenX.
How are people exposed to PFAS?
There are a variety of ways that people can be exposed to these chemicals and at different levels of exposure. For example, people can be exposed to low levels of PFAS through food, which can become contaminated through:
- Contaminated soil and water used to grow the food,
- Food packaging containing PFAS, and
- Equipment that used PFAS during food processing.
People can also be exposed to PFAS chemicals if they are released during normal use, biodegradation, or disposal of consumer products that contain PFAS. People may be exposed to PFAS used in commercially-treated products to make them stain- and water-repellent or nonstick. These goods include carpets, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging materials, and non-stick cookware.
People who work at PFAS production facilities, or facilities that manufacture goods made with PFAS, may be exposed in certain occupational settings or through contaminated air.
Drinking water can be a source of exposure in communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies. Such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility, for example,
- an industrial facility where PFAS were produced or used to manufacture other products, or
- an oil refinery, airfield or other location at which PFAS were used for firefighting.
PFOA, PFOS, and GenX have been found in a number of drinking water systems due to localized contamination. You can view more information about exposures to PFAS through drinking water on our Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS page.
Are there health effects from PFAS?
There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. If humans, or animals, ingest PFAS (by eating or drinking food or water than contain PFAS), the PFAS are absorbed, and can accumulate in the body. PFAS stay in the human body for long periods of time. As a result, as people get exposed to PFAS from different sources over time, the level of PFAS in their bodies may increase to the point where they suffer from adverse health effects.
Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animal studies. The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:
- infant birth weights,
- effects on the immune system,
- cancer (for PFOA), and
- thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).
Continue with article:
When Americans think of polluting industries, they usually think of steel mills, coal plants and massive factories belching smoke and dumping toxins. But like the military bases in Colorado, industries not normally associated with pollution have been major drivers of environmental harm in the decades since the rise of the modern environmental movement — including Silicon Valley’s tech companies. Focusing on these stories, rather than the outdated images of smokestacks, steel factories and burning rivers, shows the persistence of pollution in a high-tech age, as well as the necessity of ongoing local activism to demand federal regulation.
Drinking-water contamination has been a source of health concerns for well over a century. Issues of water quality, sewage disposal and waste treatment rose up alongside the development of urban areas, which depend on access to fresh water for sanitation, public health and industrial and municipal development. Throughout the 19th century, American cities treated water supplies as public sewers and waste depositories. Few industries and property owners faced challenges to their use of water resources until public health advocates during the Progressive Era brought attention to the ways pollutants were contributing to health problems in local populations.
The article concluded by stating:
Yet local activism can influence national action. Regulatory measures, political organizing by advocacy groups and resident pressure on local and national legislators shape responses to environmental risk. Activists cannot only successfully raise awareness about the challenges communities face, but can also recast what is perceived as pollution and risk — a necessary strategy as Americans tackle the massive environmental threats of the 21st century.
How can PFAS be removed from the water?
Reducing PFAS in Drinking Water with Treatment Technologies
Published August 23, 2018
Per- and Polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that persist in the environment. These chemicals have been used for decades in consumer products to make them non-stick and water resistant. They are also found in firefighting foams and are applied in many industrial processes. Unfortunately, the characteristics that make them useful are the reason they persist in the environment and can bioaccumulate, or build up, in our bodies and the bodies of animals.
PFAS also dissolve in water, and combined with their chemical properties mean traditional drinking water treatment technologies are not able to remove them. Therefore, EPA researchers have been studying a variety of technologies at bench-, pilot-, and full-scale levels to determine which methods work best to remove PFAS from drinking water.
Certain technologies have been found to remove PFAS from drinking water, especially Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which are the most studied of these chemicals. Those technologies include activated carbon adsorption, ion exchange resins, and high-pressure membranes. These technologies 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.
Activated Carbon Treatment
Activated carbon treatment is the most studied treatment for PFAS removal. Activated carbon is commonly used to adsorb natural organic compounds, taste and odor compounds, and synthetic organic chemicals in drinking water treatment systems. Adsorption is both the physical and chemical process of accumulating a substance, such as PFAS, at the interface between liquid and solids phases. Activated carbon is an effective adsorbent because it is a highly porous material and provides a large surface area to which contaminants may adsorb. Activated carbon (GAC) is made from organic materials with high carbon contents such as wood, lignite, and coal; and is often used in granular form called granular activated carbon (GAC).
GAC has been shown to effectively remove PFAS from drinking water when it is used in a flow through filter mode after particulates have already been removed. EPA researcher Thomas Speth says, “GAC can be 100 percent effective for a period of time, depending on the type of carbon used, the depth of the bed of carbon, flow rate of the water, the specific PFAS you need to remove, temperature, and the degree and type of organic matter as well as other contaminants, or constituents, in the water.”
For example, GAC works well on longer-chain PFAS like PFOA and PFOS, but shorter chain PFAS like Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS) and Perfluorobutyrate (PFBA) do not adsorb as well.
Another type of activated carbon treatment is powdered activated carbon (PAC) which is the same material as GAC, but it is smaller in size, powder like. Because of the small particle size, PAC cannot be used in a flow through bed, but can be added directly to the water and then removed with the other natural particulates in the clarification stage (conventional water treatment or low-pressure membranes – microfiltration or ultrafiltration). Used in this way, PAC is not as efficient or economical as GAC at removing PFAS. Speth says, “Even at very high PAC doses with the very best carbon, it is unlikely to remove a high percentage PFAS; however, it can be used for modest percent removals. If used, however, there is an additional problem with what to do with the sludge that contains adsorbed PFAS.”
Ion Exchange Treatment
Another treatment option is anion exchange treatment, or resins. Ion exchange resins are made up of highly porous, polymeric material that is acid, base, and water insoluble. The tiny beads that make up the resin are made from hydrocarbons. There are two broad categories of ion exchange resins: cationic and anionic. The negatively charged cationic exchange resins (CER) are effective for removing positively-charged contaminants and positively charged anion exchange resins (AER) are effective for removing negatively charged contaminants, like PFAS. Ion exchange resins are like tiny powerful magnets that attract and hold the contaminated materials from passing through the water system. Negatively charged ions of PFAS are attracted to the positively charged anion resins. AER has shown to have a high capacity for many PFAS; however, it is typically more expensive than GAC. Of the different types of AER resins, perhaps the most promising is an AER in a single use mode followed by incineration of the resin. One benefit of this treatment technology is that there is no need for resin regeneration so there is no contaminant waste stream to handle, treat, or dispose.
Like GAC, AER removes 100 percent of the PFAS for a time that is dictated by the choice of resin, bed depth, flow rate, which PFAS need to be removed, and the degree and type of background organic matter and other contaminants of constituents.
High-pressure membranes, such as nanofiltration or reverse osmosis, have been extremely effective at removing PFAS. Reverse osmosis membranes are tighter than nanofiltration membranes. This technology depends on membrane permeability. A standard difference between the two is that a nanofiltration membrane will reject hardness to a high degree, but pass sodium chloride; whereas reverse osmosis membrane will reject all salts to a high degree. This also allows nanofiltration to remove particles while retaining minerals that reverse osmosis would likely remove.
Research shows that these types of membranes are typically more than 90 percent effective at removing a wide range of PFAS, including shorter chain PFAS. With both high pressure membrane types, approximately 80 Percent of the feed water, the water coming into the membrane, passes through the membrane to the effluent (treated water). Approximately 20 percent of the feedwater is retained as a high-strength concentrated waste. A high-strength waste stream at 20 percent of the feed flow can be difficult to treat or dispose, especially for a contaminant such as PFAS, according to Speth. Perhaps this technology is best suited as a point of use technology for a homeowner, since the volume of water being treated is much smaller and the waste stream could be disposed of more easily with less cause for concern.
Here are the products that we have that can effectively remove PFAS from the water:
Activated Carbon Treatment
Filtersorb SP3 media with whole house carbon filtration
Ion Exchange Treatment
Boyett’s family portable exchange water service
Using an AER in a single use mode followed by incineration of the resin. One benefit of this treatment technology is that there is no need for resin regeneration so there is no contaminant waste stream to handle, treat, or dispose.
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