Major Investment in PFAS Cleanup Projected
These dangerous ‘forever chemicals’ are found in water and food supplies
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals that are so resistant to breakdown in the environment and the human body that they have earned the popular moniker “forever chemicals.” They are associated with low birth weight, immune and endocrine system interference, and cancer. And they are everywhere: in our household products, workplaces, food, and even our drinking water.
But change is on the way. PFAS have been around for 70 years, but finally public awareness and, therefore, concern are driving regulation. And according to a new report, this regulation, in turn, is projected to fuel an investment boom in PFAS treatment systems.
The Bluefield Research report, “PFAS: The Next Challenge for Water Utilities,” predicts upwards of $3 billion in capital outlay yearly for PFAS drinking water remediation equipment by 2030. While the projection relies on United States federal policies that have yet to be enacted, 29 states, notably the deeply affected New York and Michigan, have already started passing a variety of PFAS policies ahead of the federal government. These include testing standards and bans of PFAS in food packaging material and firefighting foam.
There is room for PFAS response on many levels in the water industry. At the 2019 American Water Works Association (AWWA) annual convention, Water Research Foundation CEO Peter Grevatt explained:
The Extent of PFAS Contamination in the US
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are two of the earliest, most common, frequently detected, and well researched of the PFAS compounds. The U.S. has begun phasing them out, but there are 600 still in commercial use in the U.S., and thousands worldwide, as well as many other legacy PFAS lurking in the areas where they were used.
Currently, 1,400 areas in 49 states are known to have some level of PFAS contamination, including military bases, industrial areas, airports, and old firefighter training sites. The figure also includes 223 community water systems in 12 states that fulfill the drinking water needs of 3,000 people or more.
Many embrace a circular economy (an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources) as the way toward a sustainable future. A key component of that economy is the resource recovery model in wastewater treatment. Along with energy, biosolids to be used for fertilizer and soil amendment are major resources routinely recovered during the wastewater treatment process. Now, testing is identifying troubling levels of PFAS in biosolids and, consequently, in agricultural products. More research is needed to solve this complex problem.
PFAS Water Treatment
Removing PFAS from drinking water is easier than then removal from biosolids, with mature technologies waiting for federal regulation and subsequent investment to start the boom. Water treatment technologies that can remove PFAS include granular activated carbon (GAC), powdered activated carbon (PAC), ion exchange, and membrane processes like reverse osmosis (RO) and nanofiltration.
Carbon filtration is most commonly used for PFAS treatment at the moment, but membrane processes like RO are the most effective. RO costs have significantly lowered since the mid-2010s, potentially increasing the role they’ll play in PFAS remediation.