close
close
Skip to main content
Lasque Tiarc

Removing PFAS from public water systems will cost billions and take time – here are ways you can filter harmful ‘forever chemicals’ at home

Vaseline 2 months ago

Chemists invented PFAS in the 1930s to make life easier: nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, grease-resistant food packaging, and stain-resistant carpet are all made possible by PFAS. But in recent years, the growing number of health risks associated with these chemicals have become increasingly alarming.

PFAS – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – are now suspected or known to contribute to thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol, liver damage and cancer, among other things.

They are found in the blood of most Americans and in many drinking water systems. That’s why in April 2024, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the first enforceable federal limits for six types of PFAS in drinking water systems. The limits – between 4 and 10 parts per trillion for PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS, PFNA and GenX – are less than a drop of water in a thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools, which speaks to the toxicity of the chemicals. The sixth type, PFBS, is regulated as a mixture using a so-called hazard index.

Complying with these new limits will not be easy or cheap. And there’s another problem: Although PFAS can be filtered from water, these “forever chemicals” are difficult to destroy.

My team at the University of Notre Dame is working to solve problems with contaminants in water systems, including PFAS. We explore new technologies to remove PFAS from drinking water and to deal with PFAS waste. Here’s a glimpse at the scale of the challenge and ways you can reduce PFAS in your own drinking water:

Removing PFAS costs billions per year

Every five years, the EPA must choose 30 unregulated contaminants to monitor in public drinking water systems. Currently, 29 of those 30 pollutants are PFAS. The tests give an idea of ​​how widespread PFAS are in water systems and where.

The EPA has taken more than 22,500 samples from approximately 3,800 of the 154,000 public drinking water systems in the US. Testing found at least one of the six newly regulated PFAS in 22% of those water systems, and about 16% of systems exceeded the limit. new standards. East Coast states had the largest percentage of systems with PFAS levels exceeding the new standards in EPA testing conducted to date.

Under new EPA rules, public water systems have until 2027 to complete monitoring for PFAS and provide publicly available data. If they find PFAS in concentrations that exceed the new limits, they will have to install a purification system by 2029.

How much that will cost public water systems, and ultimately their customers, is still a big unknown, but it won’t be cheap.

The EPA estimated the cost to the nation’s public drinking water systems to comply with the news regulations at about $1.5 billion per year. But other estimates suggest that the total cost of testing and cleaning up PFAS contamination will be much higher. The American Water Works Association estimates the cost of PFOS and PFOA alone at more than $3.8 billion per year.

There are more than 5,000 chemicals considered PFAS, but only a few have been studied for their toxicity, and even fewer have been tested in drinking water. The United States Geological Survey estimates that nearly half of all tap water is contaminated with PFAS.

Some of the money for testing and cleanup will come from the federal government. Other funds will come from 3M and DuPont, the leading makers of PFAS. 3M agreed in a settlement to pay between $10.5 billion and $12.5 billion to help reimburse public water systems for some of their PFAS testing and treatments. But public water systems will still incur additional costs, and those costs will be passed on to residents.

Next problem: throwing away ‘forever chemicals’

Another big question is how to dispose of the captured PFAS after they have been filtered out.

Landfills are being considered, but that only pushes the problem to the next generation. PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals’ for a reason: they are incredibly resilient and don’t break down naturally, so they are difficult to destroy.

Studies have shown that PFAS can be broken down with energy-intensive technologies. But this entails high costs. Incinerators must reach temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius to destroy PFAS, and the potential for creating potentially harmful byproducts is not yet well understood. Other proposed techniques, such as supercritical water oxidation or plasma reactors, have the same disadvantages.

So who is responsible for managing that PFAS waste? Ultimately, the responsibility will likely lie with public drinking water systems.

The EPA designated PFOA and PFOS as eligible pollutants for Superfund status on April 19, 2024, meaning companies responsible for contaminating sites with those chemicals could be required to pay for cleanup. However, the EPA said it had no plans to go after wastewater treatment plants or public landfills.

Steps to protect your home from PFAS

Your first instinct might be to use bottled water to avoid exposure to PFAS, but a recent study found that even bottled water can contain these chemicals. And bottled water is regulated by another federal agency, the Food and Drug Administration, which has no standards for PFAS.

Your best option is to rely on the same technologies that the treatment facilities will use:

  • Activated carbon is similar to charcoal. Like a sponge, it will catch the PFAS and remove it from the water. This is the same technology in refrigerator filters and in some water jug ​​filters, such as Brita or PUR. Keep in mind that many refrigerator manufacturers’ filters are not certified for PFAS, so don’t assume they will remove PFAS to safe levels.

  • Ion exchange resin is the same technology found in many home water softeners. Like activated carbon, it captures PFAS from water, and you’ll find this technology in many cup filter products. If you opt for a whole-house treatment system that a plumber can connect to where the water enters the house, ion exchange resin is probably your best choice. But it’s expensive.

  • Reverse osmosis is a membrane technology that allows only water and selected compounds to pass through the membrane, while blocking PFAS. This is usually installed near the kitchen sink and has proven to be very effective at removing most PFAS in water. It is not practical for treating the entire house, but it will likely remove many other contaminants as well.

Just because you have a private well instead of a public drinking water system does not mean you are safe from PFAS exposure. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates that 71% of shallow private wells in that state have some level of PFAS contamination. Using a certified laboratory to test well water for PFAS can cost $300-$600 per sample, a cost barrier that will leave many private well owners in the dark.

With all treatment options, make sure the device you choose is certified for PFAS by a reputable testing agency and follow the recommended maintenance and filter replacement schedule. Unfortunately, there is currently no safe way to dispose of the filters, so they go in the trash. No treatment option is perfect and no treatment is likely to reduce all PFAS to safe levels, but some treatment is better than none.

This article, originally published on April 17, 2024, has been updated to include EPA’s Superfund declaration.The conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.