From crisis to clarity: Confronting PFAS in tap water

Nov. 2, 2023

Unseen but undeniable, PFAS contamination is the “elephant in the room” when it comes to drinking water. Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) remain a contentious issue across the United States, and regulatory actions on the “forever chemicals” are moving, and moving quickly. In this rapidly evolving landscape, the drinking water treatment industry stands as a beacon of hope, uniquely positioned to tackle PFAS head-on. With cost-effective and efficient solutions like third-party certified point-of-use (POU) and point-of-entry (POE) drinking water treatment systems, many may be looking for ways to talk about PFAS solutions in a clear, concise, and calm manner.  

Navigating drinking water challenges can be difficult, and as more information comes in from the Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitor Rule (UCMR 5), testing and monitoring data will shed light on the situation on the ground and in the water. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to research, regulate and restrict PFAS in the environment, it is important to note a few key regulatory actions by the agency specifically surrounding drinking water.  

Regulatory actions  

In March, the EPA proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR) for six PFAS substances, including an enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion (ppt) each. The proposed regulation also includes a Hazard Index (HI) approach for four additional PFAS including PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and HFPO-DA (GenX Chemicals) at a value of 1. The agency is expected to finalize the regulation in late 2023 or early 2024, and it will take effect three years after the final ruling (in 2026 or 2027).  

While the EPA is making strides in regulating PFAS in drinking water, more than 10 states have already established or proposed enforceable MCLs or Action Levels. At the state level, regulations vary significantly depending on the concentration and different PFAS outlined. For example, Michigan has some of the strictest MCLs covering seven PFAS including PFNA (6 ppt), PFOA (8 ppt), PFHxA (400,000 ppt), PFOS (16 ppt), PFHxS (51 ppt), PFBS (420 ppt), and Gen X Chemicals (370 ppt). Although some of these levels are not as low as the proposed regulations by the USEPA, states continue to lack consistency; the agency’s actions will provide uniformity and harmonize regulations for PFAS in drinking water across the country.  

Despite variations in PFAS concentration levels and a lack of regulatory consistency across states, recent developments within the agency provide a glimpse into the landscape of “forever chemicals” in water supplies. Notably, in August EPA released the first data set from the UCMR 5. Containing frequency and occurrence data for 29 PFAS and lithium in 2,193 Public Water Systems (PWSs), the UCMR 5 provides a snapshot of the nation’s drinking water; 431 PWSs show detectable levels of PFAS. Of that, 219 PWSs are reporting levels exceeding the EPA-proposed regulations. Although this is a relatively small sample size, upwards of 50% of PWSs may be at risk of being out of compliance.  

Mitigating exposure 

Testing, treating, and taking action are the necessary measures to mitigate PFAS exposure. When water quality standards and regulations are established, and areas of contamination are identified, many will seek drinking water solutions and tools to reduce PFAS exposure. It is important to note that varying levels and different PFAS can impact proper treatment options. Testing drinking water at the tap and using a certified laboratory to test for PFAS will ultimately help guide and tailor treatment options.  

Third-party certified POU and POE drinking water treatment systems are effective tools and play a vital role in addressing PFAS contamination. Specifically, POU Reverse Osmosis (RO) systems as well as other POU and POE filtration systems, such as carbon blocks, Granular Activated Carbon Matrixes (GAC), and Anion Exchange (AIX), systems can treat these contaminants. However, it is important to note that not all carbon, RO, and AIX can remove “forever chemicals;” technologies certified to NSF/ANSI 53 or NSF/ANSI 58 provide assurance that a system is tested and verified to reduce PFAS.  

Disposal & reporting 

Testing and treating for PFAS in drinking water are the first steps in minimizing exposure, but how does one approach handling and disposing of PFAS removed from water supplies?  

Regulatory actions through the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) by EPA have dramatically impacted PFAS out of the water and the stewardship of the substances in waste streams and products. Notably in 2022, the EPA proposed a hazardous substance designation for PFOA and PFOS; this past year the agency aimed to expand the designation to additional PFAS under CERCLA. In addition to these comprehensive efforts, the final ruling on the TSCA, effective in November 2023, will require all manufacturers and importers of PFAS or PFAS-containing articles since 2011 to report chemical, environmental, and health effects to the EPA.  

Handling and disposing of hazardous waste and reporting on PFAS-containing articles can be a complex task, but it is vital to understand that these designations may not be directly applied to residential and in some cases commercial drinking water treatment. In residential applications, POU and POE residuals and waste streams are considered household waste and are exempt from hazardous waste disposal requirements. In commercial settings, requirements vary and are largely dependent on the quantity of waste generated. When it comes to manufacturing applications, it is important to note that the TSCA final ruling exempts “persons who have only processed” and those who have passively received or collected PFAS from reporting under this rule. This exemption is important as it may shed light on how future USEPA actions impact the disposal of PFAS-containing materials. 

WQA resources 

Understanding regulations and their impact on your business is essential. To help navigate the regulatory landscape on “forever chemicals,” the Water Quality Association (WQA) has developed a PFAS Portal. A one-stop shop for everything related to PFAS, this portal includes a downloadable Dealer Guide, which serves as a practical tool containing the latest scientific and regulatory information and is packed with talking points on treatment options and disposal strategies.   

As this developing regulatory landscape continues to gain momentum and scrutiny intensifies surrounding drinking water, it is vital that the water treatment industry has a seat at the table. Being able to have a voice in the decision-making process and effectively guide policymakers by providing resources can help craft sound policy. Collaboration with policymakers is essential in bringing drinking water solutions and tools to confront PFAS head-on.  


About the Author

Jordan Kari

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