What will come from the new rule on PFAS in drinking water?

As of 10 April 2024, new regulations are now in place regarding PFAS in the United States. To quote the US-EPA announcement,

“The Biden-Harris Administration issued the first-ever national, legally enforceable drinking water standard to protect communities from exposure to harmful per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as ‘forever chemicals.’”

Who is impacted? To again quote the EPA’s announcement:

EPA estimates that between about 6% and 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems subject to this rule may have to take action to reduce PFAS to meet these new standards. All public water systems have three years to complete their initial monitoring for these chemicals. They must inform the public of the level of PFAS measured in their drinking water. Where PFAS is found at levels that exceed these standards, systems must implement solutions to reduce PFAS in their drinking water within five years.

This announcement has left many water utilities wondering about their next steps and long-term outcome as regards PFAS. So, we asked Daniel Cho, CEO of Onvector, for his take on what this means for the water sector in the USA.

Q: How big is this news?

A: It’s very big. This is the most impactful regulation that the EPA has made on water for a generation, maybe 25 years. I believe it could save tens of thousands of lives over decades, if it is fully implemented.

Q: Given that it’s such a large change, will water utilities be able to comply?

A: I expect they can. It’s important to remember that treating PFAS in drinking water ultimately requires addressing two separate problems – one problem is about how to remove PFAS from the water to protect human beings at the end of the pipe, and the second is how to actually destroy the PFAS that’s collected to prevent PFAS from re-contaminating water and the environment. The first problem, removal, is easier to solve than the second, destruction. The three main PFAS removal technologies being used by utilities are granular activated carbon (GAC), ion exchange resin, and reverse osmosis. All are fairly well-established, mature technologies. However, a great deal of technical and engineering expertise is needed to implement these technologies to meet the low limits required for PFAS treatment, and there is still uncertainty about how to do all of this cost-effectively. The government’s new rule focuses on removing PFAS from public drinking water supplies. It doesn’t apply to private wells.

Q: Is it possible to test to the levels the government is expecting, can this be monitored, and can utilities demonstrate whether they’re compliant with the regulation?

A: Yes, yes, and yes. The allowable levels are in the parts per trillion range, and there are established methods for measuring to those concentrations. Here again, the greatest uncertainty has to do with long-term cost pressures because the precision required to test to such trace levels is expensive. Nevertheless, the fact that certified labs are able to measure to those levels reliably means it’s possible for regulators to monitor compliance and for utilities to demonstrate that they are meeting their obligations. Most large utilities and water companies, at least, are set up to measure and monitor dozens of other contaminants including lead and mercury, so they are well-positioned to monitor for PFAS chemicals listed in the regulations, too. And remember, the new EPA rule provides three years to complete their initial monitoring, and five years to implement solutions.

Q: What does the EPA say about what to do with the PFAS-laden material after the PFAS has been removed from the water stream?

A: EPA did not yet make a decision on adding PFOA and PFOS to RCRA and CERCLA, which would enable PFAS to be treated as hazardous materials and would create a framework for cleaning up PFAS contamination. This new rule applies only to drinking water. But it is interesting to note that a few days prior to announcing the drinking water rule, the EPA released interim guidance on destruction and disposal (https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2024-04/2024-interim-guidance-on-pfas-destruction-and-disposal.pdf). It focuses on the current practices of incineration and landfilling, while pointing to new technologies on the horizon.

Q: How do you see this playing out over the next few years?

A: This rule will definitely be challenged. There will be stakeholders claiming that this rule cannot meaningly address the PFAS problem because a majority of PFAS is entering the human body through air and food. Another set of challenges against this new drinking water limit will be focused on the clinical toxicology data.

Despite such challenges, this drinking water limit for PFAS is likely to stand, regardless of how the political pendulum swings this cycle, in my opinion, because public awareness is growing about the scope of the PFAS problem and there’s a political cost to doing nothing. I suspect that within 5 years most of the public water systems in the U.S. will have some form of PFAS treatment implemented or under construction.

For Onvector, this just underscores why PFAS destruction technology is so important. Many companies are still producing PFAS in the U.S. and countless companies are incorporating PFAS into their products or importing products with PFAS from overseas. The reason is of course because these chemicals are so useful. As such, the overall mass of PFAS in our water, soil, food, air and environment may continue to build up even though PFAS is being removed from drinking water.

If you’re interested in learning more about how our technology can help you with your PFAS problem, please reach out to us today.