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Environment & Energy Report

INSIGHT: The Costs to Your Community of Chasing Background Levels of PFAS

Nov. 25, 2019, 1:33 PM

You’re paying for PFAS cleanup now. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals used in non-stick coatings, food wrappers, fabric treatments, other household products, firefighting foams, and industrial processes. All levels of government are collectively spending millions on PFAS – and that’s increasing. Most of the spending is properly addressing highly contaminated sites, but more and more money is going to chasing trace background levels. How much will we spend? And at what point are any benefits unmeasurable or marginal?

PFAS have been in use more than 50 years and are persistent. They are in our trash, in our septic systems, and at our local wastewater and waste management facilities in trace amounts. Modern analytical chemistry has made it possible to measure parts per trillion (ppt). A ppt is equivalent to one second in 31,700 years.

Unfortunately, PFAS are also in our blood in a few parts per billion. And some PFAS persist there. That’s what scares people. After the Flint water lead crisis, regulators feel pressure to be responsive. While Canada set drinking water limits of 200 and 600 ppt for the two most prominent PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – respectively, New Hampshire just regulated them at 12 and 15 ppt. These diverging standards reflect differing levels of political pressure within the context of scientific uncertainty. Rushing to set low limits on background levels of PFAS has unintended consequences, disrupting important environmental programs.

Wishing PFAS could be zero bumps up against the reality of ubiquitous background levels. For example, tests of wells on Cape Cod, MA showed home septic systems as the source of PFAS at levels above California’s new notification levels and close to New Hampshire’s limits. Michigan has found treated wastewater does not meet their surface water screening value for PFOS. Every wastewater, even from home septic systems, has several PFAS in parts per trillion. Must we regulate PFAS everywhere?

As states regulate, they try to estimate cost. A single mid-sized drinking water utility in North Carolina is spending ~$36 million outright and $2.9 million annually for PFAS treatment. New York estimates $1 billion just for drinking water systems to meet proposed standards. New Hampshire, population just 1.36 million, estimates more than $260 million to meet its new requirements. These estimates don’t include indirect impacts on wastewater and waste operations and businesses.

And concerns about potential liability related to background levels of PFAS received by municipalities have further increased local costs. Such concerns led Concord, New Hampshire to ship biosolids with average trace levels of PFAS to Canada, at double the cost. In Maine, a moratorium on biosolids impacted local budgets by hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past six months. Yet the background levels of PFAS all our municipalities receive and manage show minimal, if any, impacts, compared to major PFAS sources. These frontline public water quality protectors will do what’s needed, but municipal costs need to be justified, the benefits shown.

There are demonstrated benefits of cleaning high-contamination industrial and firefighting sites and drinking water. And such sites have clearly identifiable responsible parties. But how prudent is the focus on background PFAS from our households where the burden of cleanup falls squarely on municipal systems? Yes, the truly responsible parties, the chemical companies and industries that make and use PFAS, are being forced to pay and will increasingly. But extracting that money will take years. Meanwhile, state and municipal spending will climb into billions. How much of that will be spent chasing traces?

As New Hampshire rushed to set its PFAS standards, it did not complete full accounting of costs and benefits and skipped a needed public comment period. A local sewer district and other aggrieved parties have sued, asking a court to require proper process in rulemaking. Political pressure and agency expediency should not overrun the necessary scientific basis for regulations, especially given the huge potential costs involved. It is critical to get the science right and only act where benefits can be shown.

While their efforts were in good faith, New Hampshire and Maine have exposed the pitfalls of bending to political pressure and rushing forward with limited knowledge.

We can learn from this, and be smarter in our PFAS spending: focus on testing and treating drinking water using EPA’s 70 ppt health advisory for now, reduce other obvious exposures (e.g., food packaging, fire-fighting foam recalls, manufacturing releases), continue cleaning up highly contaminated sites, and develop more science.

And the most cost-efficient, practical way to reduce risks is eliminating the use in commerce of persistent chemicals with likely toxicity, as demonstrated by the voluntary phase-outs of PFOA and PFOS in the 2000s, facilitated by EPA. Data clearly show the benefits – reduction in Americans’ blood serum levels by 70% or more in the past 15 years. That’s huge, cost effective, and a road map for future actions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Ned Beecher is Special Projects Manager and former Executive Director of North East Biosolids & Residuals Association.