Cleaning Water Supplies: How PFAS Are Treated
May 20, 2020 | Environmental Litigation
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of hazardous industrial chemicals that have been found in water supplies throughout the US. Unfortunately, due to the persistent nature of these compounds, they can linger indefinitely in both the environment and the human body.
Recently, the task of cleaning up water supplies has fallen to individual cities and local governments, and many are struggling to cope. Local governments are underequipped to deal with PFAS, leaving them helpless as more and more of these compounds find their way into the water supply. What options do they have when it comes to treating PFAS-infected water?
Treatment Processes For Removing PFAS
Solutions for treating PFAS do exist, but they typically come with high costs, either financially or in terms of efficiency. Which technology to use and how to deploy it remains a contended issue.
Some states are already performing trials using various experimental technologies, but with varying success. You can bring contamination levels down with large-scale engineering, but it requires considerable expense and, often, the deployment of multiple systems.
The other option is to block contaminated water sources, but this isn’t usually possible or desirable for cities.
Here are some of the current options for treating PFAS with some success:
Reverse osmosis is a technology that uses a membrane to remove unwanted particles, including PFAS, from water supplies. While the technique is effective, it is neither cheap nor efficient. Estimates from Evans Industrial, for instance, suggest that implementing the solution at scale could cost cities between $2 and $4 million.
Furthermore, this technology causes large volumes of water to be wasted—perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the city’s total supply—due to its high PFAS concentration.
Granular Activated Carbon
Granular activated carbon, or GAC, has become a popular water treatment across the country owing to its efficiency in removing problematic contaminants.
Experts consider GAC to be the current state-of-the-art PFAS removal technology, owing to promising results from recent pilot trials. Carbon-laced filters effectively trap PFAS particles, reducing their concentration to levels the EPA considers safe.
There are, however, still drawbacks. While the system works well and preserves water, maintenance is expensive, and carbon filters only last a set length of time before they become saturated with PFAS particles. Estimates for the upkeep for a mid-size city fall in the region of $300,000 per year.
Ion exchange is a technique that attempts to sieve PFAS from the water supply by using charged particles. Experts don’t see it as a stand-alone treatment option, but rather something that city authorities can use in conjunction with existing GAC technology.
Again, though, the costs might outweigh the benefits in many places. While ion exchange is effective at mopping up particles missed by GAC, large systems capable of filtering 2000 gallons per minute—an efficiency capable of serving a large urban area—could set cities back $7 million per year. Sums of money like that will be exorbitant for all but the wealthiest areas.
So far, these appear to be the only legitimate technologies capable of solving the problem. The EPA has investigated other solutions, but the vast majority have proven ineffective. Without more cost-effective technologies, it appears that city authorities are left to either spend a significant quantity of taxpayer money or merely ignore the problem, which isn’t going away any time soon.
How water treatment solutions pan out depends heavily on the cost-benefit analysis. We still don’t know the full extent about the effect of PFAS on the human body, but we do know that exposure to these toxic chemicals can lead to an increased risk for:
- testicular cancer;
- liver disease;
- serious thyroid problems;
- kidney cancer;
- ulcerative colitis;
- low birth weight; and
- premature babies.
The long-term health consequences could be severe, in which case removing them should be a matter of urgency. But if these serious consequences take time to surface, it may discourage immediate public intervention.
In general, there are no simple solutions to this issue. It is not a simple question of using one technology over another; cities will likely have to personalize their approach.
Holding Manufacturers Responsible
In summary, once PFAS compounds have contaminated a water source, it is costly and time-consuming to get rid of them. Furthermore, most local governments and organizations don’t have the resources that they need to treat local water supplies effectively.
Residents, however, still need a safe supply of drinking water. That’s why Napoli Skolnik’s environmental attorneys are leading the fight to hold manufacturers accountable for PFAS contamination they cause.
Currently, the only viable solution is to give municipalities and water providers access to the necessary resources for treatment is to pursue litigation against manufacturers in order to receive restitution. By working with cities and individuals affected by PFAS contamination, Napoli Shkolnik is helping them receive the funding they need to ensure that PFAS contamination levels in water return to safe, consumable amounts.
We encourage you to read our Water District Informational Booklet that outlines the resources available to you.
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