By Gary Battenberg
In the November 2022 issue of WC&P, the feature article by Kaitlyn Longstaff outlined known causes and effects of groundwater contamination due to natural disasters and unintended manmade consequences. This article will respond to those issues that are top of mind in our industry with a more in-depth assessment of the past, present, and advanced treatment technologies for risk mitigation of groundwater contamination for perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
What Are PFCs?
PFCs consist of a large group of manufactured compounds that were produced in 1947 by 3M in Cottage Grove, MN. They are used currently to make everyday products more resistant to stains, grease, and water. In the past five years, two of these compounds, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), have garnered acute attention, prompting some manufacturers to quickly develop certified treatment products for both point-of-use (POU) and point-of-entry (POE) applications based on proven historical activated carbon treatment.
These two chemicals were phased out in 2002. However, because they exhibit high thermal, chemical, and biological inertness, they are environmentally persistent and highly resistant to breakdown. Until the 1980s, because these compounds were resistant to breakdown, they were erroneously considered inert by the manufacturers, which subsequently contributed to underestimating the effects of human and animal immunotoxicity.
Research has shown the possible health risks of exposure to PFOA and PFOS and how they relate to low infant birth weight, decreased fertility, elevated cholesterol, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, liver inflammation, weakening of the immune system, and testicular and kidney cancer. In 1962, an internal Dupont document raised concerns about health risks from exposure. In 1981, another internal document raised concerns about birth defects in children of female production workers. In 1993, 3M began to monitor PFOA in blood serum from production workers along with a parallel mortality study of prostate cancer. Yet it was not until 2008 that health risk limits for PFCs in drinking water were issued. Unintended consequences can certainly be claimed, but 40 years of sweeping the data under the rug clearly points to profits as top priority. Finally, in 2018, 3M was fined $850 million by the State of Minnesota for groundwater contamination.
The U.S. EPA established a Lifetime Health Advisory action level for a combined sum of PFOA and PFOS (referred to by the acronym PFASs, with the lowercase ‘s’ indicating the plurality of the two combined chemical compounds) at 70 parts per trillion. As many as 3,000 other PFAS chemicals are still used in a wide variety of everyday products, including personal care products such as hand creams, body lotions, and sunscreen; fast-food containers; waterproof raincoats; conformal coating for electronics; stain-resistant carpet and upholstery; microwave-popcorn bags; and nonstick cookware (Teflon), just to name a few. This begs the question: How can these chemicals be removed from our water supplies? Let’s look at the options available for mitigation.
First, there is good news about treatment of PFASs. In point-of-fact, those who have been treating water in this industry for any amount of time have been mitigating PFASs when applying activated carbon filters, reverse osmosis, or anion exchange, or a combination of all three. Tried-and-true technologies have been available since the early days of our industry. But not knowing anything about these contaminants until recent evidence was confirmed through medical and scientific testing is proof that past and present treatment for remediation of known contaminants also reduced the level of PFASs along with other unknown contaminants. These technologies have been independently tested to show they are capable of removing PFASs from drinking water when properly sized and applied.
Granular activated carbon filters and contactors have been used for more than a century in commercial, industrial, institutional, and food and beverage processing, and in laboratory installations the world over. Carbon block filters have been used for more than 40 years to remove chlorine taste and odor, as well as to reduce many organic chemicals. Powder-activated carbon (PAC) was more recently introduced for contaminant remediation and has proven highly effective at removing contaminants when combined with and held within filter medium to prevent it from being washed away. When carefully selected for challenge water conditions, carbon block and PAC filters yield exceptional water quality. With proper routine monitoring and diligent maintenance, these types of filters will continue to provide customer confidence in clean, treated drinking water, food preparation, and many other applications where high-quality water is required.
When combined with activated carbon, commercial and residential reverse osmosis systems refine the water at the molecular level to provide even greater quality standards for food and beverage processing, bottling, commercial humidification, sterile water, dialysis, and many other applications where highly purified water is required.
Depending on the compound chemical makeup of the challenge water, anion exchange resin systems may provide the high-quality requirements to meet specification. Research and development and pilot-scale testing have been ongoing to prove efficacy with resin-based technologies. The issue with contaminated resin is the process required to destroy the PFCs after regeneration to eliminate reintroducing the contaminants into the ecology. Hot temperature heat processes have proven to be a viable method for larger installations but may not be economically feasible for residential and light commercial installations because of the prohibitive cost of energy. More fieldwork is in process, and performance data for analysis is being compiled to find the most cost-effective method for this treatment option.
Hopefully, within a brief time, this kind of treatment may be available for side streaming contaminated municipal, small community, and mutual domestic water sources to blend the water quality to below the U.S. EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL). Until that time, these water system providers must decentralize and inform their customers when the water quality exceeds the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act. This is where the professional water treatment dealers can be the source for mitigation by providing certified POU and/or POE treatment systems for reduction or removal of these contaminants.
In March 2021, the EPA published Regulatory Determinations for Contaminants (https://epa.gov/ccl/regulatory-determination-4), which included a final determination to regulate PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. A proposed National Drinking Water Regulation is scheduled for publication by the end of 2022. Additionally, the EPA is evaluating additional PFCs and considering regulatory actions to address groups of PFCs, with the goal of finalizing the rule by the end of 2023. For further information and to learn more about PFASs and understand what actions the EPA takes to address PFASs and other emerging PFCs, visit https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-explained.
There is virtually no state in our nation where PFASs has not been detected, and some with levels that exceed the EPA MCL. Numerous communities have had their water services suspended due to severe contamination and have had to find other water sources to blend in order to comply with regulation or access adjacent utilities with water quality fit for consumption. Water conditioning dealers, retail stores, and online companies all stand to benefit from the remediation products and services they provide.
As Longstaff pointed out in her article, much of human activity has unintended consequences. Some are identified immediately and remedied, while others may take decades to discover and require advanced treatment technologies yet to be developed. The good news is the resolute scientists, innovators, researchers, and solid manufacturing companies who work hard to provide dependable treatment solutions for the consumer. While humanity has a long history of hurting the environment, we also have the ingenuity and wherewithal to clean up our mistakes and avoid potential repetitive actions.
About the author
Gary Battenberg is a Business Development Manager-Senior for Argonide Corporation. Previously, he was Technical Manager, Water Treatment Department of Dan Wood Company. Prior to that, Battenberg was Technical Support and Systems Design Specialist with Parker Hannifin Corporation. His nearly four decades of experience in the water industry include a proven, successful track record in areas of sales, service, design and manufacturing of water treatment systems. Battenberg’s technology base covers mechanical and adsorptive filtration, ion exchange, UV sterilization, RO and ozone technologies. He has worked in the domestic, commercial, industrial, high-purity and sterile water treatment arenas. A contributing author to WC&P and a member of its Technical Review Committee since 2008, Battenberg was voted one of the magazine’s Top 50 most influential people in the water treatment industry in 2009. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at (407) 488-7203.