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Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

What Operators Should Know about PFAS in 2019

What Operators Should Know about PFAS in 2019

In February of 2019, the EPA released an action plan to manage the contamination of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in water. The plan will propose an MCL regulatory determination for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) detected under the UCMR3 by the end of 2019 and will continue environmental cleanup.

The UCMR3 found that areas with affiliated industrial sites, military fire training, and wastewater treatment plants were associated with PFOA and PFOS detection. Once released, PFASs can persist in the environment for the long periods of time, bioaccumulating in humans and animals that consume contaminated drinking water. A new health advisory for these chemicals has set the maximum recommended concentration in drinking water at 70 ppt. Exposure above this threshold may cause developmental defects, cancer, liver damage, immune issues, metabolic effects, and endocrine changes. 

Unfortunately, a health advisory is not enough to protect consumers from PFAS in drinking water as it does not legally require utilities to take action against unsafe levels. In the absence of necessary regulatory authority, several states have pushed forward with their own policies. These states have struggled with how to implement a standard without clear federal guidelines. Despite this, many states are working to set or have already set their own maximum contaminant levels. 

Options for reducing exposure to elevated PFAS contamination include changing sources, closing off contaminated wells, alteration of blending rates, or implementation of treatment. Studies have found that granular activated carbon (GAC), ion exchange, or membrane separation can treat PFAS. The removal efficiency can reach 98-99%, but it will ultimately depends on the length of the PFAS chain and the treatment method used. Installing a new treatment method is financially devastating for many systems. Alabama’s West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority (WMEL) estimates that the costs to install a permanent R.O. filter will reach $30-50 million. The authority has filed a lawsuit that could assist with funding the necessary upgrades.


There is currently no standardized analysis approved for PFAS testing in drinking water, however laboratories have modified the EPA groundwater detection method 537 for systems in need of monitoring. When using this method, the EPA recommends that systems “evaluate its appropriateness relative to your goals for the data.” In some locations PFAS regulators and manufacturers have also set up programs to monitor groundwater contamination. You can contact your state primacy to learn about these types of resources. 

If test results repeatedly indicate water concentrations of 70 ppt or greater for either contaminant, systems should follow any existing state regulations and promptly notify their primacy and customers. In absence of regulations, c
ustomers should be informed of the health effects and advised to consume bottled water until a better option is available. Download a consumer-friendly fact sheet from CDC.