Clean drinking water is a priority for every community. Water problems can be harmful to residents, such as in Flint, Michigan, where a health crisis emerged due to lead contamination.
While aging lead pipelines pose a challenge, they can be identified and replaced. However, there’s one contaminant – or more accurately, a type of contaminant – that not only seems hard to test for and find, but even harder to treat.
These are the so-called forever chemicals. In chemical terms they are identified as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The chemicals are a group of fluorinated compounds that have been around for decades and used in a variety of ways, including commercial, industrial, and military applications. We know them best through nonstick pots and pans, where the coating contains PFAS compounds.
WithersRavenel Utilities Department’s Assistant Project Manager Carolyn Hawkins, EI, PMP, got interested in PFAS when she was studying for her master’s degree and working on a special project looking at possible PFAS treatment. During her project, Carolyn investigated a possible treatment method and is currently finishing up a comprehensive literature review of the research into the issue.
PFAS have a lot of carbon-fluoride bonds, which are considered the strongest bonds in chemistry, and they are incredibly difficult to break, Carolyn said. So that is why PFAS compounds have been coined as the “forever chemicals” because they are just so hard to degrade and get rid of.”
Effects of PFAS
Then there is the question of how the chemicals affect humans and the environment. There has been a lot of research recently on the effects of these compounds on humans. Each year there are numerous studies that show the many adverse health effects of these compounds, including cancer, reproductive issues, and developmental effects in children Carolyn said.
PFAS enter the water system primarily through groundwater. Some PFAS primarily perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) have been detected in soil, surface water, groundwater, and drinking water in numerous locations, according to a Congressional Research Service report earlier in August.
Though it is not the only way to be exposed to PFAS compounds, water is potentially one of the ways to be exposed to it, Carolyn said.
About 2.4 million North Carolinians rely on groundwater as their primary drinking water source, according to North Carolina Health and Human Services. Other sources put the number as high as more than 4 million residents.
A history of PFAS in North Carolina
North Carolina’s brush with PFAS compounds goes back more than 40 years.
Clean Cape Fear, a grassroots community action group, was formed in June 2017. The group was formed after Chemours Fayetteville Works Facility, formerly known as DuPont, acknowledged that the company’s plant discharged large amounts of GenX, a PFAS compound, into the Cape Fear River and released toxic amounts into the air, as far back as 1980.
Since then, the state of North Carolina has worked to put an end to the wastewater discharge from the plant into the Cape Fear. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has been working to manage the risks from PFAS contamination, not only from this one facility, but also at other sites in the state. DEQ’s PFAS Action Strategy document from earlier this year is aimed at addressing the issue in a comprehensive manner for a contaminant that—as of now—cannot be treated easily.
While there are no federal regulations that tackle the problem, Carolyn expects regulations to eventually be put in place, providing communities and engineering firms such as WithersRavenel a roadmap to testing and treating the problem.
As an engineering firm, it is good to be aware about what’s going on with issues related to PFAS compounds, especially for utilities engineers who are closely involved on projects that look at drinking water sources, she said.
We keep an eye out on the regulations and treatment technologies since this is an up-and-coming methodology. That’s pretty much what we can do at this point to keep on top of it and be prepared for the future. Eventually, those regulations will be in place, and we are going to need to treat this problem.”
A solution in sight
Meanwhile, there is hope on the treatment front. A study published in the journal Science by UCLA and Northwestern University researchers says that they have found a weak spot in these compounds. A report in Axios said: They have discovered that a mixture of sodium hydroxide, or lye, combined with dimethyl sulfoxide, a common organic solvent, in water heated [to] 176 to 248 degrees Fahrenheit was able to break the strong bonds that hold together perfluoro carboxylic acids (PFCAs), one of the largest classes of PFAS.”
The new study could be a catalyst in expediting EPA regulations to take shape and be implemented. According to Carolyn, One of the reasons why it is taking so long for these regulations to come through is that PFAS compounds are incredibly difficult to treat and get rid of; there are so many variations of them; and it is a challenge to make robust methods to test every single one of these compounds, some of which are only now being discovered. Currently analysis methods need to detect parts per trillion (ppt), and detection limits will likely be even lower in the future. The EPA just came out with updated Health Advisory for PFAS and PFOS of 4 ppt.”
Funding for PFAS remediation
When WithersRavenel undertakes water projects, PFAS contaminants are prioritized based on client needs. One of WithersRavenel’s public clients has sought to address the PFAS issue as we work with them on a water engineering project, said Carolyn. So even though they are not required by any regulations to deal with it, some clients are looking ahead to the future, and the people they serve.”
Meanwhile, the federal government is providing some funding to help states address this issue. According to the EPA, it has invited states and territories to apply for $1 billion—the first of $5 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grant funding—to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water, specifically in small or disadvantaged communities.
Carolyn said being proactive when it comes to drinking water, educating clients who have concerns about PFAS in their water system, helping them tackle the problem through the best available treatment options, and directing them to available funding are the best recourse to a seemingly forever problem.
Are you concerned about PFAS in your private or community water supply? Contact Carolyn Hawkins at (919) 238-0479 or email@example.com to put WithersRavenel’s water resources engineers to work for you.