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Broad ‘Fishnet’ PFAS Testing Worries Industry, Helps Regulators

Sept. 8, 2020, 10:00 AM

North Carolina, the EPA, and an international standards organization want to use a method for detecting known and unknown “forever chemicals” in water that the chemical industry opposes for being too broad.

The test they want to use measures total organic fluorine amounts in water and can provide a broader picture of all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in a sample instead of testing for one or a few substances at a time.

By removing the need to test for individual PFAS, states may be able to speed up the process for regulating groups of the chemicals, some of which have been linked to cancer.

Some states are choosing to regulate two or a handful of the thousands of chemicals in the PFAS family. A total organic fluorine test on a drinking water sample could reveal PFAS chemicals that don’t yet have regulatory limits.

Water utilities are already using the test to screen for PFAS in drinking water samples. But the test could be bad news for companies liable for cleaning up polluted sites, said Emily Lamond, member of Cole Schotz PC in Hackensack, N.J.

“From a remediation standpoint, I think it poses a lot of challenges and concerns, because then you’re potentially testing for chemicals that you have no regulatory responsibility for,” Lamond said.

More Regulations

Developing a reliable total organic fluorine test could lead to further regulations. Such a test may “improve the timelines,” or accelerate the process, for developing exposure limits, advisory levels, or PFAS regulations, said Anna Gurney, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

North Carolina required Chemours Co., which uses PFAS in its manufacturing processes, to restrict the amount of the chemicals it releases into the environment. Their 2019 agreement requires Chemours to pay for a third party to develop a way to measure total organic fluorine in air emissions and wastewater.

The project will cost $300,000, a Chemours spokesman said.

PFAS have been used to make nonstick and stain-resistant coatings in clothing, fast-food wrappers, carpets, and other consumer and industrial products. They’ve been found in drinking water and wastewater nationwide, prompting a patchwork of regulations that typically focus on the most common or widely studied half-dozen of the substances.

The chemicals may cause adverse health effects, including developmental harm to fetuses, testicular and kidney cancer, liver tissue damage, immune system or thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

‘Mere Presence’

Members of the American Chemistry Council, which include Chemours and 3M Co., oppose using total organic fluorine testing as a regulatory benchmark.

“It won’t provide any meaningful information to inform regulators as to any potential risk posed by a substance,” the council said in a statement, adding that total organic fluorine testing “only indicates the mere presence of fluorine,” and not which PFAS are present.

Some water utilities are already using total organic fluorine screening to identify whether there’s a need to run more specific PFAS tests, said Steve Via, director of federal relations for the American Water Works Association.

“It’s a tool, and it’s a useful tool, but you have to make sure the tool you have at hand is appropriate for the question you’re testing,” Via said. Water utilities have used the total organic fluorine test over the past few years on an ad hoc basis to help determine potential PFAS contamination and in treatment studies, he said.

“That use will grow as more systems consider PFAS as a contaminant and the method becomes more widely available from commercial laboratories,” Via said.

But finding organic fluorine in a sample doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of PFAS or whether it’s unsafe, said Bart Seitz, senior counsel at Baker Botts LLP in Washington, D.C.

“I’m not sure that all compounds that throw off a fluorine atom are going to be uniformly toxic or benign,” Seitz said.

At the same time, using the approach to screen for the chemicals may be beneficial, he said, considering the thousands of substances in the PFAS family.

“One of the problems I think everybody’s trying to grapple with is... how burdensome it is to think that you’re going to have to look at them all,” Seitz said.

‘Fishnet’ Approach

ASTM International, an organization for technical standards, is developing a test method for total organic fluorine in water and wastewater.

“Our approach is a bit like a fishnet, compared to fishing with a rod,” said Takuro Kato, the technical contact for the ASTM subcommittee developing the method.

“We want to develop a tool that covers every PFAS, whether they are currently considered dangerous or not. This way, if there are new findings suggesting that another substance of this class is problematic, you already have a measure of how much there may be in the environment.”

The EPA announced in its 2019 PFAS action plan that it would develop a total organic fluorine test. It is now considering taking on validation work for the test that ASTM is working on, said William Lipps, chair of ASTM’s water committee.

The EPA declined to comment. ASTM could have a published test method in about a year, according to Lipps.

In North Carolina, Chemours and the state agency agreed to hire Susan Richardson, a chemistry professor at the University of South Carolina, to develop the test. Since the university was partially shut down due to the pandemic, the deadline for the finished product has been pushed to June 30, 2021, according to the agency.

To see the latest updates on state-level PFAS regulations and legislation, check out Bloomberg Law’s PFAS State Activity Tracker here.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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