Emerging Contaminants – PFCs

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) as an emerging contaminant group.  PFCs are man-made compounds that are highly soluble in water and are chemically and thermally resistive.  Their resistance to degradation causes PFCs to be detected at low concentrations throughout the environment, including the Arctic.

The EPA has listed two specific PFCs on the Contaminant Candidate List 3 (CCL3).

  • Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) – according to the EPA, was used in fire-fighting foams and various surfactant uses; few of which are still ongoing because no alternatives are available.
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – is used in the manufacture of fluoropolymers, substances which provide non-stick surfaces on cookware and paper goods; stain-resistant coatings on carpets; and waterproof, breathable membranes for clothing.

In Concord, New Hampshire, PFOS was detected at a concentration above the EPA health advisory in a water supply well that served the Pease Transport and Air National Guard base.  The well was shut down in May 2014.  The suspected source: fire-fighting foam used when the base was a Strategic Air Command base.  Recently, PFOS was detected in supply wells in Warminster, Pennsylvania; Horsham, Pennsylvania; Middletown, Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Delaware.  The common trait between all these sites is their close proximity to airports/air bases.

The EPA has established drinking water provisional health advisories (HAs) of 0.2 µg/L or (ppb) for PFOS and 0.4 ppb for PFOA.  If the EPA officially determines that these compounds are drinking water contaminants, the EPA will promulgate the Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) sometime in the next several years.  The EPA uses the Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR3) to collect data for chemicals in drinking water that do not have health-based standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  The EPA has listed five other chemicals within the PFC group under the UCMR3.

Attention to PFCs as environmental and human health concerns continues to become more focused.  Monitoring and perhaps regulation of PFCs in stormwater will most likely progress regardless of whether the EPA promulgates MCLs (and it is expected they will).  This may be particularly troublesome for water discharge permits.  PFCs in water supplies may pass through industrial processes unaltered, ultimately discharging through the wastewater system.  With water quality standards set and the prevalence of PFCs in the environment, storm water management may become more challenging in the near future.

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