'Forever Chemicals': A closer look at PFAS

We turn the spotlight on PFAS, popularly known as 'forever chemicals', and explain why it's important to be aware of its growing presence in our midst. 

By Dr. Ken Scally and Dr. Mikael Khan

In recent years, Per & Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) have gained significant traction in the wastewater and water management industries not only in the UK but all around the world.
Considered as one of the biggest and most complex environmental challenges of our time, PFAS are a group of chemicals which are divided into two families -- polymer and non-polymer compounds, comprising a broad group of several thousand chemicals.

These so-called 'forever chemicals', so named due to their stability, chemical resistance to oxidation, and long-range transport capabilities, have become a source of concern for experts in the field. This is due to their apparent widespread presence in water, air, sediment, wildlife, and humans at low levels.

Having existed since the 1940s, PFAS is commonly found in aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used in firefighting, fabrics and textiles, paints, polishes, waxes, and other non-stick surfaces. Unfortunately, these substances are known to impact drinking water supplies and percolate in ground sources causing adverse environmental effects. Some PFAS compounds have also been linked to cancer, liver and kidney damage, and low birth rate, among other ailments.

The current regulatory landscape for PFAS globally is both complex and fragmented although there is now a concerted effort to build and enforce regulations in the coming months and years. The United States is currently leading the way in releasing regulations and advisories on PFAS. The European Union, meanwhile, has started the process of heavily legislating PFAS-related matters. While still having a long way to go, other government bodies and international treaties in the region, including the International Stockholm Convention, and the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency of the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments have started to shine the spotlight on the PFAS issue.

Industry experts recognise the multi-level challenges posed by PFAS. Keeping pace with the rapidly evolving requirements for PFAS is made even more difficult due to the wide range of advisory limits set by different authorities. Other factors include testing equipment limitations and sampling contamination. The lack of toxicological studies on PFAS is also a concern with the need to further develop our understanding of both acute and chronic toxicity.

Among the key steps that affected industries need to do are to measure and understand their position regarding PFAS advisory limits and to develop mitigation plans prior to these becoming regulatory compliance requirements.

Recognising the importance of addressing these concerns, Aqua Enviro, a SUEZ company, is at the forefront of meeting challenges posed by these ubiquitous substances. As it is, PFAS contamination can have a direct impact on water utilities and water management companies, and public health.

Using bespoke solutions, the SUEZ team has developed a robust technique to analyse PFAS based on multi-laboratory validated methods – USEPA 537.1, USEPA 533 and draft USEPA 1633. Furthermore, the team is guided by its four-element solution development approach of diagnosis, monitoring, remediation, and control.

These targeted methods focus on the list of PFAS compounds outlined in recent Environment Agency Chief Scientist's Group reports. Customers are fully supported from the start, all throughout the business impact analysis, and development of tailored solutions.

These available robust methods can analyse PFAS in water; prepared leachate, landfill leachate and effluents; treated sewage effluent; untreated sewage; and trade effluent discharges. Whereas draft USEPA 1633 is a method that will analyse solid materials such as clay, loam, and sandy soil.

Amidst all these, field quality control measures and blanks are important considerations to take to avoid any kind of cross-contamination in the samples.

One crucial thing to remember about these 'forever chemicals' is that not all PFAS are the same and, thus, require customised management solutions. This is the reason SUEZ developed a tailored, holistic solution to its customers ranging from utilities to food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and manufacturing. This means customers are supported from guidance on the regulatory landscape and business impact analysis, to understanding and developing said customised solutions to overcome PFAS challenges in ways that are technically and commercially viable and future-proofed.

As an environmental company, SUEZ is committed to the complete remediation, removal, and safe disposal of PFAS contamination from water, soil, and air. With a well-coordinated and united global effort, along with close, multi-tiered partnership across governments and industries, the PFAS menace has a good chance of being contained, if not booted out of existence