June 18, 2019
Yesterday, Today, Forever: Managing the Impact of PFAs
Among the most daunting tasks facing any EHS manager is the challenge of keeping abreast of EPA regulations. Regulations change frequently and on many fronts, making it difficult to ensure regulatory compliance. EPA regulations are evolving even now, and could have potentially cataclysmic consequences for EHS managers should they fail to account for the changes. Currently, one particular area of interest is the regulation of per and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds (PFAs).
A Brief History of PFAs
Following World War II, the first commercially viable PFA compound was invented by the 3M Company: Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). 3M licensed the Dupont Company to use this compound for a variety of applications, beginning around 1950 with the product TeflonTM. During the last 65+ years, PFAs have been used in such products as fire fighting foam (AFFF foaming agent); water-proofing material for shoes, clothing, and equipment; non-stick coatings for a multitude of applications including cookware and building products; stain-resistant carpeting; and various paints, coatings, waxes, and polishes. The EPA is currently in the final stages of drafting new regulations covering PFAs. This will be landmark regulatory territory due to the compounds’ many applications and extensive history.
Environmental and Health Concerns Surrounding PFAs
The primary environmental concern with PFAs is their general lack of biodegradability, for which they are referred to as “forever compounds.” In fact, PFAs biodegrade at such a glacial rate that they are now estimated to be present in the bloodstreams of over 99% of those in developed countries around the globe, including the United States. During a comprehensive bloodwork study conducted in the early 2000s, researchers were forced to find blood samples collected during the Korean War– approximately fifty years earlier – in order to find blood samples with no PFAs. PFA compounds enter the environment via a multitude of pathways, including air and dust particles; bioaccumulation from food, plants, fish and other animals; and contact with treated items (even bags of microwave popcorn may have these compounds present to maintain a grease-resistant inner surface). Exposure can also occur through employment at a facility that produces or uses these compounds, or through in utero fetal exposure or early childhood exposure through the milk of mothers who have been exposed prior. The list of health risks associated with the use of PFAs is a hot topic; they are suspected to affect the liver, kidneys, digestive tract, reproductive organs, and fetal development, as well as the thyroid gland.
The most ubiquitous means of exposure to PFAs may now be drinking water. In 2000, studies suggested that only a few locations across the country were affected by these compounds. By 2018, using superior detection technology, studies have revealed drinking and groundwater contamination over a much broader area of the country, including most of the Northeastern seaboard, the Ohio River Valley, Tennessee River Valley, Great Lakes states, and even parts of the West Coast States and the Midwest, particularly in Michigan. There are already several
grossly contaminated sites in Michigan that are being remediated due to PFAs. The EPA is now facing the colossal challenge of finding suitable treatment options for such sites. Currently, several technologies are being used with varying degrees of success. While granular activated carbon is the most common means, technologies such as reverse osmotic water treatment and highly selective hydrogel filter media have also been attempted. Disposal technologies used are primarily permitted deep-well injection and incineration facilities.
EPA has many options to act on the current problem including authority from the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA); The Safe Water Drinking Act; The Clean Air Act; The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA); and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). These powerful laws are in place to act on this problem, and now, after at least 15 years of being aware of the problem, the EPA has a comprehensive plan to deal with the contamination. The details of EPA’s proposed action plan can be found here: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-02/documents/pfas_action_plan_021319_508compliant_1.pdf
Although the use of the particular compound PFOA was phased out of use as of 2015, recent studies show that replacement compounds for PFOA have similarly toxic characteristics. However, their benefits are primarily based on their significantly shorter half-lives in their biotic degradation in the environment. EPA has listed more than 1,000 PFA compounds, and although about half are no longer commercially viable, contaminants may still exist at any site.
Implications for EHS Managers
What does this mean to the average EHS manager responsible for the environmental compliance for a site or a company? Although none of these compounds are currently listed in Section 313 (TRI reporting), there is a great deal of pressure to add several of these compounds to this list in order to track the sources and amounts being discharged, including the following:
Perfluorooctanoic Acid CASN 335-67-1
GenX CASN 62037-80-3
Heptafluoropropionic acid dimer (HFPO-DA) CASN 13252-13-6
The primary impact of compliance programs will be on groundwater contamination and disposal options for such material. Since their genesis, the waste industry has largely operated on the assumption that PFAs are chemically inert, thus enabling their use to become globally widespread and reducing the priority of monitoring them in the environment. However, upon learning that PFAs are biologically active, remediation has become a crucial focus within the EPA.
In addition to the possibility of additional TRI reporting, it is highly likely that new EPA regulations will impact future changes to all NPDES, SWPPP, and other discharge-related permits, both for the solid waste community and the municipal waste community. As PFAs
begin to appear in previously uncontaminated sites, such organizations will need a more sophisticated means of waste profiling, shipping, waste tracking, and reporting to remove contamination, and will be very limited as to the approved treatment technologies available. Subtitle D landfills are not a reliable option for the disposal of this material. Thus, it is likely that a new category of waste management must be created, which will then require many locations with no prior experience to track such materials.
How WASTELINQ Helps
WASTELINQ has the functionality and flexibility to maintain a library of all relevant waste streams and their associated CAS numbers to aid in reporting and overall waste management. Even as new compounds are added, WASTELINQ will be proactive in updating all applicable components of its software to ensure that all reporting criteria are satisfied. WASTELINQ has the infrastructure to address any necessary changes in waste profiling, waste tracking, and waste shipments, especially for those sites which have never required these functions.