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What are PFAS?

PFAS (aka poly or per-fluorinated alkylated substances) are a group of synthetic fluorinated organic compounds found in textiles, food packaging, non-stick cookware, personal care products (i.e. cosmetics, shampoo, toothpaste), adhesives, coatings, aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), and surfactants.  The carbon-fluoride bond of the compounds is strong and resistant to hydrolysis and biodegradation.  They can repel water and oil, which provides benefits for textiles and many consumer products.

Invented in the 1930s, PFAS now consist of more than 4,000 compounds.  Two of the earliest and most studied PFAS compounds are perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which have been found to be highly mobile and long-lasting in the environment and organisms.

PFAS were first detected in industrial workers in the 1970s and in many humans and animals by the early 2000s.  After an investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) invited PFOA-producing companies to participate in a Stewardship Program, which strived for a 95% reduction of PFOA by 2010 and elimination by 2015.  All the companies involved in the program met their goals; however, additional PFAS compounds and replacements to PFOA and PFOS have been developed since that time, and PFOS and PFOA are still prevalent in products made in other countries.

Additionally, PFOS and PFOA are considered “terminal end products” in the breakdown of other types of PFAS compounds, so as usage and disposal of these products continue, PFAS compounds will not only show up in more and more places but accumulate in food, air, and water.

PFAS are commonly divided into “long-chain” and “short-chain” categories based on the number of carbon atoms.  PFOS and PFOA are long-chain and some of the newer replacement compounds like PFHxA and PFBS are short-chain.  While they are all considered PFAS, it is important to know which ones are contaminating your water (and which ones are regulated) so an effective treatment solution can be established.

Why care about PFAS?

Toxicological and epidemiological research is still on-going, but initial studies have shown that certain PFAS compounds can impact the liver, thyroid, pancreas, cholesterol, hormones, and reproductive functions.  It may also increase the risk of cancer.

Because PFAS have been used in many products over the years, exposure has shown to be common as identified through blood testing of humans and animals.  PFAS compounds do not break down very easily, so they accumulate and remain in the body for a long time.  Exposure rates in the US have decreased for the two most researched long-chain compounds PFOS and PFOA because they have been phased out of use.  For more information, visit this CDC page.

A recent study has found that female firefighters are exposed to higher levels of PFAS than other women.  Studies are identifying elevated rates of cancer and PFAS exposure among firefighters, which may include higher rates of breast cancer.  For more information on the research, read this article.

Why are firefighting foams like AFFF a concern?

PFAS compounds were added to firefighting foams in the 1960s because of their strong hydrophobic benefits and ability to quickly suppress fuel fires like burning jet fuel spills.  Foams are widely used for training at airports and military bases and installed in some building fire suppression systems.  As more information came to light about the environmental and health problems associated with PFAS, it became clear that a lot of the contaminated areas were associated with the use of AFFF.  The persistence of the compounds allow them to not only remain in the environment for a long time, but also spread into large plumes and enter drinking water supplies.

States, industries, and fire departments are moving toward the replacement of PFAS-containing AFFF with safer alternatives such as fluorine-free firefighting foams (F3 foams), including some that only contain biodegradable ingredients.

As AFFF is being phased out, equipment decontamination and waste disposal have become major dilemmas.  Anything that has PFAS compounds in it needs sufficient disposal or cleaning, from leftover foam itself to fire suppression piping and contaminated soil.  Some landfills can take the materials, while others are sent for incineration.  However, those options pose their own complications and controversy.  Reports show incineration may not destroy or capture the PFAS compounds completely and instead spread them into the atmosphere.

A new lawsuit claims the US Department of Defense (DOD) violated the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), enacted in December 2019, by not ensuring its incineration of AFFF is in a temperature range to effectively destroy PFAS and reduce emissions of the compounds.  The NDAA consisted of a list of PFAS-related provisions, including guidelines to ensure proper incineration and plans to phase out the use of PFAS-containing foams in military firefighting activities.  To read about the lawsuit, click here.  To learn about the PFAS provisions in the NDAA, see this NYU report.

A DOD-contracted aggregate kiln facility in New York has been incinerating PFAS-containing AFFF for the last couple of years and now there are calls for a moratorium.  The facility has been working with state and federal regulators to develop a stack test to determine if incineration methods can prove effective in destroying the compounds.  For more information on this topic, visit this article.

What are the federal and states governments doing about PFAS?

The USEPA proposed preliminary regulatory determinations for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water.  The agency is seeking public comments on the two compounds, as well as data on other PFAS chemicals.  If a determination is made to regulate PFOS or PFOA, it will then proceed with establishing a standard.  As part of their PFAS Action Plan, the USEPA set a Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory limit of 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA back in May 2016.  For more information, see their press releaseThe USEPA is also considering a proposal to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the remediation act known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

States across the country are passing legislation to protect human health and the environment from PFAS contamination, from setting drinking water limits to prohibiting manufacturing and use of PFAS-containing products.  Several have also sued the companies who have been making the chemicals for years.  The states leading the charge against PFAS include California, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Vermont, and Washington.  To learn more about state polices, regulations, and lawsuits, check out Safer States and this recent article.

How can we help?

Clear Creek Environmental Solutions has set up a team of partners who are some of the most knowledgeable people in the ever-changing world of PFAS.  Together, we have proven results throughout the world with millions of gallons already treated.  Our team is also very active in research and development to continually stay on top of PFAS treatment methods and developing systems that take up less space, make less waste, and lower capital and long-term costs.   We also offer disposal services for AFFF, media, and contaminated materials.

It takes experience and knowledge to find the best and most cost-effective solution so your time and money aren’t wasted.  Our team offers that reliability.  We help you and your community maintain PEACE OF MIND.

Call us today to discuss your PFAS treatment needs!