Contaminants of emerging concern are chemicals that have been discovered in the environment with no current regulatory standard to control them. Recently identified and discovered due to advances in science, these chemicals are concerning because their impacts on water quality, aquatic life, and human health are still unknown. The most well-known of these chemicals are classified as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
What are PFAS?
PFAS are a group of 3,000 to 4,000 chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries dating back to the 1940’s. The chemicals are persistent and accumulate over time, and there is evidence of negative health impacts from PFAS on humans and animals. PFAS are found in everyday consumer goods – generally speaking, anything that is water resistant, heat-proof, or stain resistant includes PFAS. Historically, the largest source of PFAS exposure is from firefighting foam which was used most frequently at and around airports.
Most people have been exposed to PFAS, but not necessarily at the elevated levels that are concerning. When tested, PFAS has been found in 97% of tested human blood samples. However, there is no large-scale sampling effort currently underway for PFAS in the United States.
PFAS and Drinking Water
PFAS contamination of drinking water is typically concentrated around military facilities, airfields, and large industrial facilities where the use of fire-resistant chemicals are common. Contamination can happen in different types of water sources but it more concerning in groundwater communities since there is not currently a good way to remediate or remove it from a source since drinking water systems and wastewater treatment plants were not designed to treat PFAS.
Where have elevated levels been found?
Since testing has not been done on a nationwide or comprehensive level, identified sites of contamination are limited to where local communities have requested it. Identified contamination sites are concentrated in Michigan, New Jersey, and California due to these local efforts. The Environmental Working Group, a national non-profit, has an interactive map of known contamination sites around the country.
Elevated PFAS has not been identified in the NWPA region to date. The nearest site where testing has been conducted is in Belvidere, IL around the Chrysler manufacturing plant. The test in 2014 found maximum levels of 32 parts per trillion (ppt), which falls below the US EPA’s health advisory level of 70 ppt for PFAS.
What can be done?
Currently there is no effective way to remediate or remove PFAS from water sources. In some Michigan communities where PFAS foam was discovered in streams, they have moved to bottled water as their water source. The response depends on the level of contamination and the source of the pollution. Presently, communities should know that this is a potential problem and prepare for it by being open to system upgrades and changing existing methods. If contamination is identified, water utilities and operators can play a key leadership role in the response.
On a personal level, being an informed consumer and making choices to avoid PFAS in personal goods helps protect yourself as well as gives feedback to the marketplace that PFAS-free goods are in demand.
Sarah Zack, Pollution Prevention Extension Specialist with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, presented on the topics of Contaminants of Emerging Concern, including PFAS, microplastics, PPCPs, and coal tar sealcoats to the June 2019 meeting of the Technical Advisory Committee. Download here presentation here.
The latest updates page features posts about issues affecting NWPA member communities and best practices, drawing on interviews and conversations with experts.