Per­- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS compounds, continue to challenge industries, states and municipal water utilities across the U.S. New regulations are emerging as states determine how best to address these compounds, which number in the thousands and are present in numerous industrial processes and consumer products.

PFAS are an increasing concern due to their potential negative health effects as they bioaccumulate in the human body. While much work is still needed to identify and further research the effects to humans, there is evidence that shows the potential for liver, thyroid and pancreatic complications, as well as increased cholesterol levels and risk of cancer.

In 2016 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published drinking water health advisory levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), two common chemicals in the PFAS family. On Feb. 20, 2020, the EPA announced that regulations for PFOS and PFOA would be forthcoming and initiated a 60-day comment period on its preliminary determinations, which would seek to designate PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances requiring treatment. 

Although federal regulations have not yet been promulgated by the EPA, these substances have been identified as a priority issue, and many states are proactively enacting their own regulations. PFAS is considered ubiquitous in the environment, meaning that these compounds are found to be widely present in many water supplies and, further, are slow to degrade in the environment. Because of their presence throughout the water cycle, PFAS are a concern in both municipal potable and wastewater reclamation facilities.

While concerns about the presence of PFAS have largely been focused on drinking water supplies, regulatory attention is turning increasingly to wastewater effluent and biosolids. The Water Environment Federation (WEF), a major technical and educational organization for the water industry, has noted in a recent position statement that based upon the current science there is no known significant health risk from human exposure to biosolids, and that contamination of water sources from biosolids is unlikely. 

However, public sentiment and concern, coupled with the prominence of PFAS-related issues in the public arena, such as news articles and documentaries, continue to sharpen focus on these topics and the potential pathways of these compounds into community drinking water supplies.

Municipalities need to be aware of these trends because of their potential impact on PFAS regulations. In some locations, municipalities are asked to monitor PFAS in water supplies. It is reasonable to expect these requests will eventually extend to municipal wastewater facilities. 

Communities can become more deeply informed and develop protocols now as they seek to better understand the extent of PFAS in their water resources. Municipalities can work proactively to develop plans to comply with anticipated future requirements, which may mandate the addition of new technologies at treatment plants. Cities and communities also can voice their perspectives to inform the EPA’s upcoming regulatory decisions, which can be guided through a better understanding of the extent of PFAS contamination.

Adam Bogusch is a project manager at Burns & McDonnell with more than 20 years of experience as project manager, design manager, project engineer and developer on traditional and alternative delivery projects for water and wastewater facilities. He is also experienced in energy conservation and sustainability, including the development and implementation of energy-efficiency and renewable resource projects.