Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are a leading environmental topic of discussion across the U.S.

Attention to PFAS increased after the release of the 2016 health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its very low advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. The EPA determined that exposure to PFOA and PFOS at concentrations above this limit may result in health risks. Subsequent sampling efforts confirmed the presence of PFAS in many drinking water sources and water bodies at concentrations above the EPA exposure limit, suggesting a risk was present for those using these resources.

Since 2016, states have led the regulatory response to PFAS by establishing enforceable regulations, which may include promulgated drinking water and environmental standards at levels as low as 11 ppt, establishing requirements preventing the use of PFAS in certain applications, such as fire training exercises, or including PFAS limitations in existing facility permits. On Feb. 20, 2020, EPA announced a proposed decision to regulate PFOA and PFOS under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This is a notable change from EPA’s previous role in the response to PFAS and suggests federal PFAS standards are coming. Both the states’ and EPA’s actions have spurred questions about the unfolding regulatory landscape for PFAS, including:

  • Which other PFAS should be regulated?
  • Which products contain PFAS?
  • Are the limits being established appropriate?
  • Which industries will be affected?
  • Are the regulatory standards attainable?
  • How can PFAS be treated or removed from the environment? 

While research is being conducted to answer these questions, the process takes time, even at an expedited pace. While much is known about PFOA, PFOS and related compounds, there are thousands of other PFAS that are not well understood. 

These unknowns put politicians and regulators, who are tasked with establishing PFAS regulations, in a difficult position when responding to the concerns of the public. One strategy to overcome this challenge is to set broad regulations that would list “all PFAS” as hazardous substances or to target classes of PFAS that share similar chemical properties. However, PFAS are relatively ubiquitous and found in many products, so these types of regulations are expected to have unintended consequences for municipalities and industries that would be subject to them. As organizations that produce, use or manage PFAS-containing materials look forward, regulatory uncertainties make it difficult to envision what response actions may be needed today. As these organizations take action to address PFAS, the following questions are being considered:

  • What compliance standards will apply to our operation and is there potential for them to change?
  • How should our response account for proposed or future regulations?
  • Are there reliable PFAS-free alternatives available? 
  • Do current waste management and disposal practices need to be changed? 
  • What is the most cost-effective technology for treating PFAS at this facility?

The answers to these and other questions will determine what actions are needed to address concerns over PFAS and to stay compliant with emerging regulations. 

Brian Hoye, PG, leads the Burns & McDonnell remediation team and specializes in applying new technologies and innovative approaches to emerging contaminant, environmental site investigation and remediation projects.