How PFAS are Affecting Municipalities
What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of human-made compounds that contain multiple fluorine (F) atoms. The most well-known of these compounds are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Due to the carbon-fluorine bonds they contain, these compounds are strong and stable. Known as “forever chemicals” because they are resistant to thermal, chemical, and biological degradation, PFAS have been linked to numerous health issues—and they’re in products that we use daily, such as cookware, pizza boxes, dental floss, stain repellants, and drinking water.
Municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) are not known to have historically used materials containing significant quantities of PFAS; however, many receive wastewater from local industries via their Industrial Pretreatment Program (IPP). Some of those IPP permit holders, such as chrome plating operations, may have used PFAS-containing materials. Because PFAS are resistant to degradation and conventional treatment, they could have passed through most industrial pretreatment systems and made their way to the local WWTP, where they would be just as resistant to degradation and treatment and released to local receiving water via the WWTP’s discharge. Similarly, WWTPs receiving landfill leachate could have unknowingly received PFAS. The presence of PFAS in some types of industrial wastewater and in landfill leachate was not known until relatively recently, so the process of WWTPs receiving and passing through PFAS could have been occurring for many years.
What This Means For Municipalities
Many states have required all municipal wastewater utilities with an IPP to identify potential industrial users that may be potential sources of PFAS, collect data on PFAS in their discharges, report the findings to the state, and develop plans to reduce the concentration of two PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, in their effluent to meet state water quality standards. Dealing with PFAS from incoming industrial wastewater is only one of the PFAS challenges WWTPs face. Researchers have found that not all PFAS pass through conventional wastewater treatment systems. Instead, some of the incoming PFAS mass can accumulate in biosolids. The risk here is the potential for PFAS to leach from the biosolids when they are land-applied and either percolate into underlying aquifers, wash off into nearby surface waterways, or be taken up by crops. There are currently no standards for acceptable levels of PFAS in biosolids, and most states, if they are doing anything to respond to PFAS in biosolids, are taking a measured approach.
One final way that PFAS can become a concern for municipalities is by impacting water supplies. Because human exposure to and risk from PFAS are primarily through ingestion of the chemicals in food and drinking water, this concern is significant for affected communities.
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