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“Forever Chemicals”: An Urgent Wastewater Challenge

November 3, 2022

  • South Carolina has one of the highest levels of PFAS, or “forever chemical,” contamination in the nation.
  • Source water, soil, fish and food grown near places that use or manufacture PFAS have been found to contain PFAS at levels that are toxic to humans and animals.
  • Individuals can help lower PFAS levels in the environment by avoiding products made with the chemicals and preventing them from entering wastewater systems.

PFAS: Everywhere and Forever

Adverse Health Effects Linked to PFAS

Recent researchsuggests that exposure to certain PFAS can lead to the following:

  • Increased cholesterol levels;
  • Decreased vaccine response in children;
  • Changes in liver enzymes;
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant people;
  • Decreased infant birth weights; and
  • Increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.;

A study by Drs. Phillipe Grandjean of the University of Denmark and Gina Waterfield of the Nature Conservancy found that significant levels of PFAS can pass through the placenta and into a pregnant person’s circulatory system, and can also be secreted from breastmilk. Their study showed significant levels of pre-term birth and low birth weights in the population under review, which was exposed to high levels of PFAS through a municipal water source.

They lurk in our clothes, our upholstery, our fast-food containers, and our pots and pans. They are even found in the soil where we grow food and in the water that we drink. PFAS, or per‐ and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been used since the 1950s in countless consumer products, prized for their resistance to heat, water and stains. But a large number of studies now show that exposure to the chemicals, which are also known as “forever chemicals” because they survive indefinitely in our bodies and in the environment, can have disastrous health effects.

Despite mounting evidence that PFAS are a cause for concern, they remain “ubiquitous” in our environment, as Jane Madden of CDM Smith told Words on Water. “You can find it in the dust in your household, it’s in the carpeting, it’s in the fabrics on your chairs and couches, it’s in waterproof jackets, it’s on non-stick pans, it’s in your dental floss, it’s in all the fast food packaging. … It is everywhere and you are in contact with these compounds everyday.” Listen to Words on Water (Episode #220) to learn more about where PFAS are found and how the wastewater industry is approaching and mitigating this problem.

The “Forever” in the Chemicals

The chemical composition of PFAS prevents them from breaking down in the environment, meaning they can live on in the air, soil and water, and in our bodies and bloodstreams, essentially forever. Because they resist breaking down, they are also able to travel both as airborne particles and as particles in waterways (see Fig. 1). Several disturbing new reports have shown widespread presence of PFAS in the nation’s waterways at levels that exceed federal and state limits, and in rainwaterand drinking water at levels high enough to be toxic to humans. A report by Waterkeeper Alliance identified South Carolina as one of six states with the highest concentration of forever chemicals in its surface waters, including in river basins where water makes its way to drinking water sources.

Waterkeeper Alliance Map shows South Carolina as one of six states with the highest concentration of PFAS.
Waterkeeper Alliance identified South Carolina as one of six ii states with the highest concentration of PFAS in their surface waters, including areas of the Saluda River, which is part of Greenville County’s drinking water system. Click on the map to enlarge.

A Regulatory Response

Increased awareness of the health threats and long-term hazards posed by PFAS in our environment has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin taking action. One of the biggest sources of PFAS in waterways comes from industrial wastewater. In 2021, the agency announced plans to develop new guidelines that would require improved wastewater treatment processes to clean up PFAS. And on August 26 of this year, the agency announced that it is considering listing two of the most common types of PFAS — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) — as “Superfund” hazardous substances. This designation would give federal authority to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up PFAS contamination. Public comment on the proposal is open until November 6. If successful in designating these PFAS to be hazardous substances, the EPA anticipates an increase in privately financed cleanups and technology solutions to aid in cleanup, along with new allocations of federal and state funds aimed at the efforts. Most recently, on November 2, the EPA released its drinking water contaminant candidate list, which will serve as the basis for EPA’s regulatory considerations over the next five years. This update would add a substantial number of PFAS chemicals to the list of contaminants that would be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Furthermore, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act adds more than $10 billion in funding to assist in PFAS and emerging contaminants research and clean up.

Wastewater Challenges

While the proposed rules and the Infrastructure Act take huge steps toward removing these toxic chemicals from the environment and water sources, cleaning them up at wastewater treatment plants poses particular difficulties. Studies have shown that traditional wastewater treatment methods are ineffective against PFAS, and in fact can actually change their chemical composition in ways that increase rather than decrease their presence. MetroConnects does its part to keep PFAS chemicals from making their way through our collection pipes and into wastewater treatment plants. For example, our proactive smoke and dye testing of pipes can detect leaks that cause excess “Inflow and Infiltration” (“I&I”), which introduces PFAS-containing stormwater into our wastewater systems. And the type of trenchless “cured in place pipe” (“CIPP”) technology that MetroConnects frequently uses to rehabilitate old or damaged pipes is a PFAS-free process. Greenville Water is also diligently ensuring that drinking water remains PFAS-free through their treatment practices. A 2021 water quality study found that none of the 39 PFAS that researchers tested for were found in Greenville drinking water. However, PFAS will continue to pose a threat as long as the chemicals remain in production for use in manufacturing and consumer products. Listen to Talking Under Water (Episode #56) to learn more about PFAS regulations and the complex task of cleaning PFAS from wastewater systems.

Consumer Power

Ending PFAS production on an industrial scale is key to creating a PFAS-free future. As a consumer, you have the power of the dollar to pressure companies through your purchases and grassroots organizing. The coalition project Mind the Store began issuing a Retailer Report Card in 2016 that grades major retailers on their actions to eliminate toxic chemicals, including PFAS. Consumers can use the report card to help make shopping decisions and to pressure retailers to consider safer practices. As of last year, the report found that of the 43 retailers evaluated previously, nearly 70 percent had improved since their first score on the report card! And you can tell the 12 companies that are still earning an “F” to step up their work to eliminate PFAS by signing Mind the Store’s petition. The problem of PFAS can feel overwhelming. But together, we can can phase out these toxic chemicals and keep them out of our homes, wastewater and drinking water — forever.

Make Your Home a PFAS-Free Zone

Manufacturing of PFAS and use of PFAS at the industrial level poses one of the biggest challenges when it comes to PFAS contamination in wastewater. However, individuals can also do their part to keep PFAS out of their homes and out of water sources. Here are a few solutions you can commit to today:

  • No more non-stick. Stick-free surfaces like Teflon on non-stick cookware are coated with PFAS. At high cooking heats, these forever chemicals can get into the food you consume, as well as the food residue that goes down your drain when you wash your pans and dishes. Be wary of non-stick pans that claim they are non-toxic. Consumer Reports found that even they contain measurable levels of PFAs. Try cast iron or ceramic pans instead.
  • Avoid plastic bottles and containers. Consumer products, including drinks, food and cosmetics, often are housed in plastic containers that use PFAS as a lubricant during the manufacturing process to prevent containers from sticking to machinery and to one another. Drinking and eating from these containers transports PFAS to your bloodstream. Washing the containers and washing off PFAS-containing make-up sends it down the drain and into our water systems.
  • Go “natural” with cleaners and varnishes. Cleaners often contain ingredients listed as PTFE, “fluor” or “perfluor” — all of which are PFAS. Try vinegar and baking soda to clean, and natural polishes like coconut oil, linseed oil or hemp oil.
  • Ditch toxic personal products. Personal care items like antibacterial soap, deodorant, make-up and lotion can contain triclocarban or phthalates. Not only do these distribute PFAS on to your body, but they also enter into wastewater systems when you rinse the products off your body and down the drain.
  • Find alternatives to Scotchgard and Gore-Tex. The waterproofing components in outdoor gear often contain PFAS. When purchasing new gear, look for alternatives. If you have this type of gear now, avoid washing it as much as possible to keep the PFAS out of the water stream. Try spot cleaning for grime and hanging your gear outside for a “sunbath” that can help with smell. Not only will this keep PFAS out of the wastewater stream, but it will save money on your water bill as well! You can also petition outdoor equipment companies like REIdirectly and ask them to stop selling PFAS-containing goods.
  • Nix wax dental floss. The coating often includes PFAS, which can wind up in your body and in your sink when you rinse. Be sure to keep the floss out of the drain and out of toilets — not only will that send PFAS downstream, but it will also clog your pipes!

Unfortunately, the list of PFAS-containing consumer products is, like the life of PFAS, endless. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has created a handy printable shoppers guide to help you keep PFAS out of your homes and out of our water.

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