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Can PFAS and PFOAs be Scrubbed from Drinking Water?

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Cleaning up drinking water may turn out to be a legal and political question.

Washington, DCNew reports suggest that technological innovations may be effective in scrubbing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS/PFOA) “forever chemicals” from the nation’s drinking water. These innovations suggest part of a prospective remedy for the widespread health and environmental damage caused by these chemicals.

It is clear, however, that for the near-term, the solution will have to be a multi-pronged one, including PFAS/PFOA lawsuits, governmental regulation and scientific innovation. Today, the lawsuits may be particularly important because they both address past harms and create the financial pressure to drive regulatory and technological change.

Widespread harm

The problem is that PFAS and PFOA chemicals can be toxic, even deadly, to human beings. The harms are now well-documented. These include:
  • cancers of the liver, kidney, testes, breast, pancreas and prostate;
  • liver diseases;
  • adverse pregnancy outcomes;
  • developmental delays;
  • reduced immune responses;
  • infertility; and
  • diabetes.
After nearly 80 years of use in products like aqueous fire-fighting foam, non-stick cookware, clothing, and other consumer products, PFAS and PFOAs are everywhere in the environment. Nearly 97 percent of Americans show evidence of these chemicals in their bloodstreams. This is largely because PFAS and PFOAs have now contaminated water supplies, including reservoirs, wells, surface water, ground water and even the oceans.

Furthermore, these contaminates are called “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade under normal conditions. They may take may take hundreds, or even thousands, of years to break down in the environment -- we are talking geologic scale.

The immediate problem is medical; the ultimate problem is environmental. Science seems to moving toward some solutions in both areas. But the task of delivering the solutions to the those at risk remains.

The last mile is fundamentally a legal and political issue. Skeptics may scoff, but part of the solution may be the multidistrict litigation (MDL) now pending in the District of South Carolina.

Promising science

Certain technologies have been found to remove PFAS from drinking water. These include:
  • activated carbon adsorption;
  • ion exchange resins; and
  • high-pressure membranes.
As alternatives, these technologies can be used in drinking water treatment facilities, hospitals, apartment buildings, or even in homes at the kitchen sink or a shower.

Activated carbon absorption treatment has effectively removed PFAS from drinking water when it is used in a flow-through filter after solid particulates have already been removed. It works well on longer-chain PFAS, but less so on shorter-chain PFAS that many manufacturers now use. Some forms of activated carbon treatment may even be added directly to the water and then removed with the other natural particulates in the clarification stage that may include conventional water treatment or low-pressure membrane filtration.

Ion exchange resins are made up of highly porous, polymeric material that is water insoluble. The tiny beads that make up the resin act like tiny powerful magnets that attract and hold the contaminated materials from passing through the water system.

High-pressure membranes, such as nanofiltration or reverse osmosis, have been extremely effective at removing PFAS. Reverse osmosis membranes are tighter than nanofiltration membranes. This technique may be more than 90 percent effective at removing a wide range of PFAS, including short-chain PFAS. This technology may also work well for a homeowner, since the volume of water being treated is much smaller and the waste stream could be disposed of more easily with less cause for concern.

Together, these three techniques seem to provide several paths away from an apocalyptic planet-poisoning vision. The science is at hand – perhaps not perfect -- but enough to greatly improve the chances of those whose health may be at risk in the future. 

But a tough task remains:  How to deliver the solutions to the folks who need it. Ask Amazon -- that last mile is a killer.

How to get there from here

In February 2023 the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated  $2 billion (as part of a package of $5 billion over 5 years) to assist local and state communities to address the contamination of drinking water with PFAS and other substances. In March 2023 the Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulations that would establish legally enforceable levels for six PFAS known to occur in drinking water.

More than 2,000 cases are consolidated in the MDL; they are composed of individual plaintiffs alleging personal harm and entities seeking damages for cleanup costs and other damage. These PFAS PFOA lawsuits target more than 40 defendants. The first bellwether trials are expected to begin in June 2023. Although these lawsuits are often understood as a way of seeking individual redress for individual harms, they have clearly worked to raise the issue to national awareness.


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