By Martin Bureau, VP Innovation Logistec Environment
Originally published in Water Canada, January 2021.
The story of PFAS is a fascinating one that begins innocently enough in the early 1900’s with the invention of freon™. The story gets even more interesting with an experiment that changed the world in 1938 when a 27-year-old research chemist at Dupont mixed chemicals expecting one result, and instead discovered Teflon, arguably one of the world’s most important polymer inventions to date and just one of thousands of different types of PFAS-related substances in use around the world today.
Teflon was everywhere and was touted as a game-changer for its non-stick, heat resistant, long service life and durable properties, but as time progressed, some disturbing side-effects began to emerge, both to environmental and human health. By the turn of this century, PFAS had become labelled the “forever chemical” because once they are released in the environment, wherever that is, they are there to stay and can cause serious health issues.
A race then began to find different options, which had not been studied from an eco/toxicological standpoint, to replace them and the debate became very real: What do we do with a chemical compound that has known toxicological effects on humans and the environment (food chain) and that is everywhere and in everything? It’s found in manufacturing, in our appliances, in our bodies, our drinking water, our soil and it will continue to build up until we eliminate it… but how?
The search for a sustainable PFAS solution
ALTRA Proven Solutions experts have been performing risk assessments and implementing environmental clean-up solutions for close to 50 years and identifying the dangers of ignoring environmental and health risks like those posed by PFAS. LOGISTEC Environment was the first site remediation company called to respond to the Lac Mégantic train derailment and explosion and was instrumental in mitigating the damage caused by PFAS-containing fire fighting foams and other chemicals to the towns’ water infrastructure and lake. They are called when there is a disaster and they are called when communities identify problems, more and more these days for PFAS, that impact the people who live there and to come up with solutions to fix the problem.
Now, often, when we talk about implementing a strategy to fix a problem like PFAS, we tend to focus on what it will cost. What we rarely look at is the cost of inaction. In the case of PFAS, the cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of action, so the question remains, why are companies and communities not acting now to address their challenges with PFAS chemicals, knowing that if they wait, things will only get worse.
Why not act now?
Depending on where you are, the legislation varies. In Canada, the 2018 Health Canada report on drinking water quality establishes some guidelines for maximum levels of certain contaminants (PFOA, PFOS) but no strict regulations are enforced for drinking water. In the USA, more and more states like Michigan, Massachusetts and New Jersey have passed stringent limits on a handful of PFAS chemicals but the regulations vary from one state to the other. The government of Canada and the US EPA were both supposed to impose higher restrictions at the end of 2020. In a recent article about PFASi, scientist Clara Ng said, “Most scientists who study PFAS believe the EPA’s current health advisory for drinking water needs to be lowered. But how low, and [for] which chemicals?” The legislation in Canada and the US is also not very explicit on accountability. This lack of clear rules makes it easier to push the problem forward or aside and a lot of companies are choosing to see this as an opportunity to stay inactive. Others, like governments and military bases, are taking a more proactive approach by considering the real threats of PFAS and implementing programs over the next few years for decontamination.
Another key factor of inaction is the perception that change is going to be hard and costly. There is a consensus in the scientific community that adsorption by filtration on GAC (granular activated carbon) and uptake on IER (ion exchange resin) represent effective means of treating water impacted by PFAS. These technologies are currently available and mature. However, they have limited capacity to capture PFAS. Once this limit is reached, the media should be removed from the filters and disposed of off-site (usually destroyed by incineration). The higher the concentrations of PFAS in water, the faster the media will saturate, and therefore need to be replaced more frequently. Even knowing that, decision makers are often conservative in their choices and prefer to opt for well-known solutions instead of looking at innovative ways to treat PFAS.
Costs that reach beyond the spend
The biggest costs of not having a clear legislation, especially when it comes to accountability, are environment and human related. Since the 1970’s, massive amounts of these persistent halogenated organic pollutants, recalcitrant to degradation, bioaccumulative in the food chain and with harmful effects on human health as for ecosystems, have been introduced into the environment and are now spread globally. Furthermore, scientists are still identifying new contaminants regularly and have yet to understand the pathways these contaminants take to spread.
The longer we take to force stakeholders into action, the bigger the chances of PFAS spreading into the whole environment at higher concentrations. In Canada, there are no lawsuits against major companies, but we might see citizens movements in the coming years like those that impeached gas line projects. In the US, there are many lawsuits against companies from citizens who are asking them to remediate to the situation they have created. Doing nothing could lead to bankruptcy and devasting reputation loss for them.
According to data from a socio-economic analysis on the environmental and social impacts linked to exposure to PFAS in 2019ii, an annual cost to the health of the Canadian population can be estimated between 5.5 and 9 billion $CA. In fact, PFAS cause, among other things, cognitive disorders in the population and can be associated with problems related to fertility, attention deficit disordersiii, as well as autism.
Without speaking of human health problems, we are talking about a negative effect on the economy of the order of $200 billion per year in Europe and $300 billion per year in the US linked to a decrease in the productivity of the population linked to these contaminantsiv. Even if such studies have not been published for Canada, everything suggest the situation is similar.
Despite the fact that these CAG and REI methods meet treatment targets for drinking water or release to the environment, the latter are problematic from an economic point of view. Landfills that need to treat their PFAS-impacted leachates at several hundreds of gallons per minute report that they currently have to change or regenerate their filter media very often, sometimes more than once per month and, in some cases, up to once a week. Considering the cost of changing those filters (one filter change can cost in excess of $30,000), this can lead to annual expenses over a million dollar per site, these solutions remain penalizing in the long term for the time being. Those costs are only associated to media filter changes. Operating costs are much higher.
Implementing proven PFAS solutions through advocacy and innovation
We believe that there are two key areas where we, as Environmental experts, can have a positive impact in helping to eliminate PFAS from our environment: Advocacy and Innovation.
Over the years, we’ve studied PFAS in the field and have managed to be part of influential groups that are pushing for more accountability and firmer legislation. As it is, our experts have been asked to counsel for the Great Lakes- St. Lawrence Collaborative as well as be part of a work group aiming to create a Canada Water Agency.
Where ALTRA Proven Solutions stands out though, and where we can have the biggest impact in helping companies and communities address their PFAS issues and other environmental challenges, is through innovation. Our ALTRA Proven Solutions in water main rehabilitation, eliminating lead in services lines and our innovative PFAS solutions, recently installed at an old manufacturing plant site with contaminated soils and water, have revolutionized the handling of PFAS. It has taken years of research and development by our in-house scientists and engineers, who have discovered an innovative balance for treatment of PFAS contaminated water at a fraction of the price of the average solution. This is what drives us, finding unique solutions that are cost-effective and that will have a lasting positive impact on the environment and our communities, for generations to come.
ii Goldenman, Gretta, et al. The Cost of Inaction: A Socioeconomic Analysis of Environmental and Health Impacts Linked to Exposure to PFAS. Nordic Council of Ministers, 2019, The Cost of Inaction: A Socioeconomic Analysis of Environmental and Health Impacts Linked to Exposure to PFAS, norden.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1295959/FULLTEXT01.pdf.
iii Attina, Teresa M, et al. “Exposure to Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in the USA: a Population-Based Disease Burden and Cost Analysis.” The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, vol. 4, no. 12, 2016, pp. 996–1003., doi:10.1016/s2213-8587(16)30275-3.
iv Attina, Teresa M, et al. “Exposure to Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in the USA: a Population-Based Disease Burden and Cost Analysis.” The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, vol. 4, no. 12, 2016, pp. 996–1003., doi:10.1016/s2213-8587(16)30275-3.