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A New Frontier: Addressing the Unique Challenges PFAS Creates in the Environment

Almost all Americans have per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their blood through daily exposure in drinking water, food, air, and consumer goods. The synthetic chemicals have became an area of concern for regulatory bodies, site managers, business owners and the average American. Previous articles spoke on the health impacts PFAS have and their regulatory uncertainty, but why are these chemicals so ubiquitous and how can they be combated?

PFAS have a unique chemical structure that contributes to their widespread use and subsequent persistence in the environment. They have unusually strong carbon-fluorine bonds (one of the strongest and shortest bonds found in nature), high thermal stability, and are resistant to grease, oil, and water, making them ideal for use in industrial surfactants, consumer goods packaging, nonstick coatings, waterproof materials and clothing, electrical wire casing and surface protection products. PFAS has increased sorption in soil and sediment, are relatively mobile in groundwater, can be present in airborne particles, and do not naturally degrade at any efficiency in the environment. These unique qualities also present challenges to manage risks associated with environmental releases.

Some sources of PFAS release are:

  • Firefighting training facilities
  • Military facilities
  • Industrial releases from facilities that manufacture or apply PFAS
  • Migration from waste sites
  • Runoff from emergency response incidents
  • Sewage sludge from wastewater treatment facilities
  • Tank and supply line leaks
  • Metal plating
  • Disposal of PFAS waste in landfills not suited for these compounds

The umbrella of PFAS contains various subgroups. The subgroup of PFAS compounds that are most studied, and therefore most regulated, is perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs), containing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). Federal agency and industry studies have linked PFOA and PFOS to several health issues, including cancer, resulting in major companies phasing out production of PFOA and PFOS since the mid-2000s. However, there are concerns about the production of PFAS compounds that are not PFOA and PFOS but have similar properties and applications. Overall, they are relatively new, changing and not comprehensively studied enough to unanimously determine their environmental impact and health effects. Additionally, exposure is possible via imported goods from countries where PFOS and PFOA are not regulated.

A detailed understanding of the site’s history, and that of adjacent sites is necessary to know if there is the potential for a PFAS release or migration of PFAS has occurred at a property. Due to the ubiquitous nature of these compounds in commercial goods, Site characterization requires great care and a thorough field quality control program to ensure representative samples are being collected for laboratory analysis. Laboratory analysis can be difficult because of the varying regulatory framework of PFAS compounds by state, meaning that the typical site characterization techniques need to be tailored to satisfy local regulatory requirements. The same is true for remediation, in which the unique chemical and physical characteristics of PFAS compounds may not respond to traditional remedial strategies. Although the compounds are now able to be identified and detected in the environment, remediation technologies for PFAS compounds are still in their infancy and their widespread application is complicated by state-by-state regulations.

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