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Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been found in surface water, tap water, and even human bloodstreams.

States are increasing scrutiny of the widespread, long-lived chemicals, which often are found in tap water and the human bloodstream

PFAS is the acronym for poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, a class of more than 4,000 chemicals used in the manufacture of a wide range of consumer goods, including Teflon coating and food packaging. But because of their resistance to breaking down, they have earned the popular moniker “forever chemicals.” They are found in the environment, in tap water, and even in human bloodstreams. Once in the human body, there is no adequate metabolic process to clear them. Not only are they very difficult to remove from drinking water, but they also are considered likely carcinogenic toxins.

PFAS in the Spotlight

A combination of factors makes PFAS a perfect storm of a problem. While they are extremely useful, they also are ubiquitous, toxic, and expensive to eliminate with water treatment. But, after some high-profile exposure, policymakers and the public have started moving to regulate the chemicals.

In September 2019, the movie Dark Waters introduced the issue to the public with an Erin Brockovitch-style David-and-Goliath tale, a fictionalized version of a New York Times story of a lawyer fighting PFAS polluters.

Awareness also rose after the recent release of an Environmental Working Group (EWG) study, which found that PFAS was underreported at many locations in the United States.

States Take Action on PFAS

Although the federal government has established a 70 parts per trillion lifetime health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS — thoroughly researched chemicals of the PFAS class — there has been no federal regulation of PFAS yet. But, in January 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution 535 to limit PFAS contamination at the national level. At this writing, the bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

In the absence of enforceable federal limits, almost half of the states are working on standards, regulation, or legislation to address PFAS in drinking water. In July, Michigan passed the strictest law in the U.S., with a PFOA limit of 8 parts per trillion and a PFOS limit of 16 parts per trillion.

At the end of an exhaustive process, New York Public Health and Planning Council has now settled on some of the toughest limits on PFOA and PFOS. The rules allow only 10 parts per trillion, and public water systems in the state will be required to test and treat for them if excessive concentrations are found.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, who was involved in establishing the limits, said:

These new standards are some of the lowest and precedent-setting nationwide and were carefully considered over months of scientific review with stakeholder input to ensure successful implementation.

New York has also become the first state to limit likely carcinogen 1,4-dioxane, another extremely persistent chemical. A maximum limit of 1 part per billion in drinking water was suggested by the state’s Drinking Water Quality Council. Governor Andrew Cuomo said:

While the federal government continues to leave emerging contaminants like 1,4-Dioxane, PFOA and PFOS unregulated, New York is leading the way by setting new national standards that help ensure drinking water quality and safeguard [New Yorkers’] health from these chemicals.

California is following closely as it also considers regulation of the chemical because of its history of accumulating in groundwater.

Remaining PFAS Questions

Although there is movement on the regulatory front, many replacement chemicals for PFAS are turning out to be similarly problematic. It remains to be determined what safe levels of PFAS are, and whether they should be regulated individually or as an entire class.

While standard home filters are not up to the task of treating for PFAS, activated carbon filtration and reverse osmosis (RO) water treatment plants, such as Fluence’s Smart Packaged NIROBOX™, can significantly lower PFAS concentrations in water.

Contact Fluence to learn more about cost-efficient water solutions to help meet intensifying PFAS regulation.

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