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A New Frontier: Managing PFAS in Your Water Supply

Insights blog - PFAS in Your Drinking Water - Gannett Fleming
Author: Lori Kappen, PE, Sr. Project Engineer

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are keeping water suppliers across the country up at night. Though PFAS have been in use in the U.S. since the 1940s, entering our water supply via manufacturing processes and firefighting foam, only recently have their presence and potential health effects come into focus.

Called “forever chemicals,” PFAS do not readily break down, and instead accumulate in the environment over time. PFAS continue to persist in the drinking water supply, and although largely phased out of domestic use, have been detected in ground and surface waters in nearly all 50 states.

PFAS are considered emerging contaminants—chemicals previously undetected in the water supply or discovered only in small concentrations, and for which long-term impacts on human health and the environment are still unknown. Questions loom large: Which waters are affected by PFAS? How widespread is the issue? At what concentrations do PFAS negatively impact humans? Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a health advisory—guidance regarding health effects and water treatment—for two of these compounds, PFOA and PFOS, enforceable regulations have not been established by the federal government. It is, quite literally, a new frontier.

Where does your water supply fall on the continuum of concern? We recommend breaking down what can be seen as an overwhelming issue into three manageable steps.

Understand: Before you can address the problem, it’s important to understand what it is and how it relates to your water supply. Examine the area around your source. Is there industry with a history of PFAS use? What about airports or military installations, both of which are known to use firefighting foam? If the answer is yes, consider a PFAS sampling program. If PFAS are not detected in your source, there’s likely no cause for immediate concern. But what if you do discover PFAS in your water? 

Plan: Until a federal mandate is issued, how you approach PFAS in your supply will be driven by state regulations, which can vary. For example, New York requires that PFAS be reduced to the lowest detectable levels, while Pennsylvania recommends suppliers treat to at least below the federal health advisory limit. And just last week, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection approved new standards for two PFAS chemicals. The U.S. EPA provides a list of PFAS information specific to each state on its website. It also is important to communicate with your customers, who are increasingly savvy and connected in today’s digital age, and do so in a way that gives them confidence that you’re addressing the issue without causing undue alarm.

Act: Consultant experts can provide a thorough evaluation of your water quality and help you take the appropriate steps to manage the PFAS in your supply. Strategies might include treatment facility upgrades, pilot testing, and, in some cases, a wait-and-see approach in partnership with regulators. Treatment alternatives include granular activated carbon, resins, and even reverse osmosis, depending on the nuances of your situation.

As of today, the U.S. EPA has issued a health advisory limit for two of the PFAS compounds. Another handful is entering the spotlight. Still thousands more PFAS compounds exist in the environment with unknown impacts. It’s safe to say we’re at the tip of the iceberg. Engaging in this important dialogue now and understanding your responsibilities will help you ensure safe drinking water and a vibrant community for years to come.

Contact Lori Kappen at lkappen@gfnet.com to discuss how PFAS may be affecting your water supply and how to manage these compounds in your source.

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