This past week, an EPA news release stated, “EPA Announces Plan to Update Toxics Release Inventory to Advance Environmental Justice.”  Specifically mentioned under that headline was “reporting requirements for… PFAS.”  What are PFAS and why should we worry about them? 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) belong to a large group of what is often called “unregulated contaminants.”  This larger group includes pesticides, gasoline hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, endocrine-disrupting substances, polyfluorinated compounds, and solvents. 

PFAS are chemically stable and repel oil and water.  Because of these properties, they are used for textile coatings, food packaging, nonstick cookware, and foams used in firefighting.  They have been manufactured and released into the environment via surface runoff or wastewater for at least 50 years.    

Depiction of PFAS chemical structure. From National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST).

They are generally not biodegradable, so they persist in the environment.  In addition, conventional drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are not specifically designed to remove most these contaminants; they pass through treatment systems.  PFAS are thought to have adverse health outcomes for humans, including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancers. 

The EPA’s press release is an encouraging step in recognizing that PFAS persists in the environment and that it should be both measured and reported for health benefits in all communities.  The next steps are setting guidelines for maximum amounts in our water sources.  Ultimately, conventional drinking water treatment processes, like the one mentioned in a previous blog, may need to consider adding new technologies for removal of PFAS and other unregulated chemicals from drinking water.