Friday, June 23, 2023

Penn State Extension: Testing, Treating For PFAS 'Forever Chemicals' In PA Water Wells

By Andy Yencha and Bryan Swistock

PFAS has become an emerging contaminant of concern in groundwater wells across the U.S. PFAS includes perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. 

PFAS are comprised of many different chemicals but the two most cited are perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). These man-made chemicals were produced for decades in the United States for various industrial and home applications. 

PFAS chemicals are now commonly found in humans and throughout our environment because they are not degraded by sunlight and they are not chemically or biologically degraded in soil, air, or water.  

These chemicals are also easily dissolved in water making them more likely to occur in surface water and groundwater wells.

Research studies have found that over a lifetime of exposure, very low levels of PFAS chemicals can cause a variety of serious health effects to both children and adults. 

These include various developmental and immune system effects, damage to the thyroid, liver, and other organs, and some evidence of possible cancers. Health effects have also been reported in fetuses and infants.

Drinking water is only one possible source of PFAS chemicals found in the human body.  

You can also be exposed by eating food that is exposed to PFAS while being grown or from food packaging. 

Humans are also exposed to PFAS through contaminated soil or dust or from products that are made from PFAS chemicals. 

Individuals should speak with a medical professional if they are concerned about their potential overall exposure to PFAS chemicals.

Drinking Water Standards

Because of growing concern over the health effects from PFAS chemicals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 established a federal lifetime drinking water health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for both PFOA and PFAS. 

Based on new science EPA dramatically lowered the recommended limit for PFOA and PFOS to .004 ppt in 2022. 

At the same time the agency added advisories for two new families of PFAS compounds used as replacements for PFOA and PFOS, 10 ppt for hexafluoropropylene oxide (GenX chemicals) and 2000 ppt for Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS).

EPA Health Advisories are not enforceable regulations. Instead, they are science-based recommendations intended to raise awareness about emerging contaminants to allow for collection of additional data on occurrence, testing, treatment, and health effects. 

In many cases, this additional research results in the creation of an enforceable drinking water standard known as a "Maximum Contaminant Level" or MCL. EPA issued a proposed MCL for PFAS in 2022 which could become a national law in the next few years. 

There is more information available on the federal health advisory for PFAS, and the new proposed federal rule, on the EPA drinking water health advisories PFOA and PFOS website.

Pennsylvania's PFAS Rule

Independent of the ongoing federal rulemaking process, Pennsylvania finalized its own enforceable MCLs for PFAS chemicals in drinking water in 2023.  

This rule was created after an extensive review of available information on the human health risks posed by these chemicals, the results of a statewide testing program, and input from individuals and organizations impacted by the proposed rule. 

Pennsylvania set a limit of 14 ppt for PFOA and 18 ppt for PFOS. The rule only applies to public drinking water systems. 

Residents who get their drinking water from their own private well, spring or cistern are not regulated under this law. 

Information on this new state drinking water regulation is available from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Testing Water for PFAS

If you have a private groundwater well or spring and are concerned about possible PFAS contamination you may wish to get your water tested by a state-accredited laboratory.  

Based on current testing studies the risk of PFAS contamination in groundwater is low but more common in wells located near places where PFAS chemical were historically used such as military bases, fire training sites, dumps, landfills, manufacturing facilities and fields where biosolids (byproducts from wastewater treatment) have been spread. 

Because PFAS chemicals are an emerging contaminant, there are only a few laboratories in Pennsylvania that are accredited by the DEP to test for them, but the list of available labs is expected to grow in the coming years. 

The most up-to-date listing of state-accredited labs is available by visiting the search tool for accredited environmental labs on the DEP website. 

In that tool, choose "perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)" from the dropdown list of "Analytes".

Because PFAS testing requires especially complex testing instruments and lengthy methods, it can often cost $200 or more for one sample. 

The water sample must also be collected carefully using detailed instructions and special containers provided by the laboratory.

Home Treatment Systems to Remove PFAS

Several relatively common water treatment devices are effective in removing PFAS chemicals from water. 

Since the evidence indicates the majority of PFAS exposure occurs from drinking or ingesting water instead of from skin contact, small point-of-use (POU) treatment systems that are located on one faucet can be used to avoid most PFAS exposure. These include reverse osmosis (RO) and granular carbon filtration (GAC).

There are also larger point-of-entry (POE) water treatment systems that can be used to treat all the water entering the home. These include anion exchange units (similar to water softeners), larger GAC filters, or whole house RO units.

The EPA has conducted research on treatment technologies and published a detailed study on POU and POE treatment systems for removing PFAS.

References and More Information

Numerous organizations have many educational resources on PFAS at the links below:

-- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, PFAS in Pennsylvania

-- Centers for Disease Control PFAS fact sheet

-- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency PFAS website

-- National Ground Water Association PFAS information

-- PA Adopts Rule Limiting Drinking Water Contaminant PFAS

[-- 2019 Pennsylvania PFAS Action Team Initial Report]

Other New Extension Articles

-- Managing Your Drinking Water Well During A Drought

-- Preparing For Drought Conditions

-- Penn State Watershed Friendly Certification Program Expands To Large And Small Properties, Apartments

-- Master Watershed Stewards Plant Native Meadow In Indiana County

-- Meadow Repository - Resources For Planning, Planting Meadows

-- Master Watershed Stewards Native Plant Clean Water Installation In Delaware County Park

Education Programs

-- Multiple Dates: Private Water Supply Education & Water Testing Workshops

(Reprinted from the latest Penn State Extension Watershed Winds newsletterClick Here to sign up for your own copy (bottom of page).)


-- Children’s Health Defense News: Washington County Family Sickened By PFAS Chemicals Used In Chevron’s Shale Gas Fracking Wells, Lawsuit Alleges

-- Post-Gazette: 3M Makes $10.5 Billion National Settlement In PFAS ‘Forever Chemical’ Cases Involving Drinking Water

Related Articles:

-- Penn State Research: PFAS ‘Forever Chemicals’ Persist Through Wastewater Treatment, May Enter Crops

-- Legislative Report On Proposed Changes To Biosolids Permits Finds No Approved Method Of PFAS ‘Forever Chemical' Testing, No Standards For PFAS In Biosolids; DEP Says Changes Needed To Protect Health, Environment  [PaEN]

-- DEP: Widespread Presence Of PFAS ‘Forever Chemicals’ In Fresh Water May Have Led To ‘Inadvertently’ Using Contaminated Water For Fracking Gas Wells In Washington County   [PaEN]

[Posted: June 23, 2023]  PA Environment Digest

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