What Are Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)?

EM – May 2020: This issue of EM considers per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and emerging contaminants, and puts into context for environmental managers exactly what is the emerging threat to our natural water and land resources.
by Teresa Raine

PFAS stands for a broad group of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The group contains several categories and classes of resilient chemicals and materials with properties that include oil, water, temperature, chemical, and fire resistance. Such characteristics have been—and in some cases still are—critical for use in important product applications across many industries. While much of the public interest in, research on, and regulatory developments relating to PFAS in the United States has so far been focused on the presence of PFAS compounds in water resources, especially drinking water, increasingly attention is being paid to emissions of PFAS found in air and waste. Research has found that PFAS chemicals cycle through the environment in the air, water, soil, and sediments, and can eventually accumulate in fish, wildlife, and humans. These processes, which are collectively known as “the PFAS cycle,” are the focus of this month's invited feature-length articles.

In the first article, Nadine Weinberg and Maureen Leahy provide a detailed overview of the known sources and exposures to PFAS acknowledging that PFAS in the environment is a large and growing problem that will continue to be an important driver for many media and exposure pathways. In addition, Weinberg and Leahy help us kick off this complex and often confusing topic with a brief “PFAS Primer” on the following page.

Next, Adam Driscoll and Tim Russell consider the role of air emissions in the PFAS cycle, how regulatory agencies are responding, and the latest on PFAS emissions testing. While there are currently no federal standards for restricting or reducing PFAS emissions from industrial sources, certain states are beginning to regulate air emissions of PFAS via their air permitting programs. As a result, the authors note that there is increased interest in the methods and tools associated with quantifying emissions of PFAS in air, but more still needs to be done.

Third, Joseph A. Cotruvo, former Director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Drinking Water Standards Division and Risk Assessment Division in Toxics, provides insight into the known health risks associated with PFAS and what is considered their “safe” levels in drinking water.

As a bonus, this issue of EM includes the first installment of a new regular section of waste-themed articles, called Waste Management Corner. This first article by Stephen Zemba and Harrison Roakes aligns nicely with our focus topic as the authors discuss current data concerning the possibility of PFAS in landfill leachate, the influent and effluent of wastewater treatment plants, and sludges and biosolids derived from solid waste streams. 

Continue reading the full May 2020 issue of EM.  


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