Guest Column | January 24, 2023

Tackling The PFAS Crisis In 2023

By Marc Deshusses


2022 may be heralded as the year that PFAS took center stage in the effort to provide safe drinking water access for all. In the U.S., some states began enacting laws targeting the “forever chemicals”; in fact, eleven states enacted legislation banning PFAS in food packaging with five more currently considering taking measures. Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA took major steps and issued a proposal to designate two of the most widely used PFAS as hazardous substances under CERCLA. However, concerns that the progress accomplished thus far may not be enough to adequately combat the imminent threat of PFAS to public health have only intensified. News coverage consistently reports on PFAS-polluted sites, and new studies show that PFAS may be linked to more health risks than previously assumed. As a result, a crucial opportunity exists for the private sector to partner with state and federal legislators to win in the formidable battle against PFAS in 2023 and beyond.

Before exploring the role the private sector can serve in combatting PFAS, it is imperative to note the challenges that governments have in addressing PFAS contamination. Goals such as the EPA’s commitment to include an enforceable standard by fall of 2023, enhance permitting mechanisms, expand PFAS monitoring in drinking water and conduct more research on PFAS will inevitably take extended periods of time to establish nationwide. Regulators have yet to agree on a methodology for deriving acceptable levels of PFAS; for example, while Vermont acts based on the sum of five PFAS exceeding 20 parts per trillion (ppt), New Jersey and New York use a lower concentration limit for PFOA and PFOS. More uncertain is how to address the significant number of manufactured products containing PFAS or PFAS precursors that are available for distribution and in use. These products act as sources of ongoing PFAS contamination. In addition, how do we replace PFAS with effective and harmless substitutes in these products? 

Addressing PFAS is a serious challenge facing the world. Overcoming these challenges will require more than local, state, and federal regulators, who suffer from human and financial resource constraints as well as political pressures.  Regulators and public entities impacted by PFAS will need the help of the private sector for additional resources and risk sharing. Public-private partnerships help balance the risk between taxpayers and investors, support the implementation of innovative treatment technology, and provide expanded access to capital.

In particular, public utilities and local governments could benefit from immediate access to innovative technologies that can work in the near future while new legislation, research, and nationwide initiatives are more strongly implemented. Through this approach, sources of PFAS contamination such as wastewater treatment plants, landfills, manufacturing sites, firefighting training locations, etc. can be treated with decentralized treatment systems that eliminate PFAS from entering or reentering the environment. Currently, supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) offers a commercially viable, scalable solution for eliminating PFAS (and other contaminants of emerging concern) in aqueous and non-aqueous organic waste and wastewater streams contaminated with PFAS. (e.g., 374Water’s AirSCWO™). By deploying such technology now, PFAS can be eliminated at a large-scale while also recovering valuable resources for reuse.

In all, given the scale and complexity of addressing PFAS, no single entity can tackle them without leveraging the benefits of others. Public-private partnerships in particular are a viable yet underutilized method that can accelerate efforts to eliminate PFAS. In 2023, with key strategic efforts, we will begin to implement technologies that will eliminate PFAS.

Marc Deshusses is Head of Technology at 374Water and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University.