PFAS Primer: 5 Common Questions About the Changing Regulatory Landscape
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, constitute a complex family of synthetic chemicals that have been used extensively in industrial processes and consumer products since the 1940s. There are concerns that exposure to PFAS can adversely impact human health and ecological communities.
Since the early 2000s, when it became possible to detect these chemicals at low concentrations, PFAS have been found throughout the world—both near discharge locations and far from any known source areas, from the tropics to the poles. Over the last 8 years, there has been significant regulatory activity around PFAS. In fall of 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposed rule aimed at putting two types of PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) on the CERCLA “hazardous substances” list and is expected to release draft Maximum Contaminant Levels in 2023.
5 Common Questions About the Changing Landscape of PFAS
With major changes to the PFAS landscape on the horizon, we wanted to share a few themes that regularly come up in our conversations about these emerging contaminants. Read through the following questions to learn more.
What Are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a complex family of synthetic chemicals that have been used extensively in industrial processes and consumer products, often to suppress fire, reduce friction, and repel moisture, grease, and stains. Some PFAS are persistent in the environment, meaning they do not break down or can take a long time to break down and can bioaccumulate in organisms.
Why Should You Care About PFAS?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to designate two PFAS—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)—as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund.
Other state and federal PFAS regulations exist and are forthcoming.
What Does a Hazardous Designation Under CERCLA Mean?
A hazardous designation under CERCLA requires immediate reporting of PFOA and PFOS releases of more than one pound. The EPA may also request that responsible parties test for PFAS at their site, which could subsequently lead to the designation of new Superfund sites and reopening of closed Superfund sites.
What Happens if PFAS Are Found on a Site?
If PFAS are detected on a site, results need to be assessed carefully, and a holistic approach should be taken to determine the source of the PFAS, potential risks, and possible remedial options. Conversations with regulatory agencies around possible risks and reasonable cleanup levels are critical.
Should You Monitor for PFAS?
While there is no simple “yes” or “no” answer to this question, it is important to understand the likelihood of historical PFAS use on your site. If you believe there is a high likelihood of PFAS use on your site—either directly (through firefighting foams, manufacturing products, etc.) or indirectly (through biosolids or reclaimed water use)—an evaluation of the impacts of that use, the potential PFAS pathways, and the benefits of monitoring and proactive action is recommended.