When Joe Fusco looks at a landfill, he sees the result of decades of consumer demand for waterproof, nonstick, and stain-resistant products, a soup of “forever chemicals” that could make their way into the water supply.
“The chemicals are so prevalent in society,” said Fusco, who is vice president at Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems Inc. “You’re going to find it in every landfill. You’re going to find it in every wastewater treatment plant.”
The chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are also popping up in drinking water supplies across the country. But finding the chemicals is just the first step. Determining their source, and what steps to take next, is less clear.
Vermont, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, California, and Connecticut are among the states testing and investigating PFAS that end up in landfills.
“With the testing, we are able to get a sense of what’s out there,” said Chuck Schwer, director of Vermont’s Waste Management and Prevention Division. “We don’t have all the solutions.”
PFAS chemicals may cause adverse health effects, including immune system or thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. There are thousands of chemicals in the PFAS family.
For years, companies like 3M Co. and E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. used the chemicals to make Teflon pans and Scotchgard. Those household items ultimately get discarded in municipal landfills, like the ones Fusco’s company operates.
Found in Liquid Waste
In Casella’s Coventry, Vt., landfill, samples of liquid waste contained several of the chemicals, at concentrations that would exceed the state’s drinking water standard.
Vermont and Michigan are among a handful of states taking a closer look at PFAS in landfill leachate, the liquid waste that may come from rain falling on the landfill, from decomposing materials, or from dumped liquids, like a leaking juice box or a shampoo bottle. Those two states started focusing on PFAS in landfills with the creation of Michigan’s task force in 2017 and Vermont’s investigations in 2016.
“Our focus on the landfill leachate is catching it before it gets to a wastewater treatment plant that discharges to surface water,” said Steve Sliver, executive director of Michigan’s PFAS task force. That surface water could be a source of drinking water, he said.
No chemicals have been scrutinized as closely, down to the parts per trillion range, as PFAS, said Terri Goldberg, executive director of the Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association.
“In my experience, I have not seen a chemical like this. There’s certainly other chemicals of concern in products, but are they showing up in landfill leachate? I don’t know,” she said.
In a January study of Vermont’s one active and three closed landfills, testing revealed PFAS in all samples taken from landfill leachate.
That discovery “was not unexpected,” said Kasey Kathan of Vermont’s solid waste management program. In 2016, academic research showed that PFAS is likely to be present in leachate, she said.
‘Expression of Consumer Needs’
Landfills are “pretty effective” at sequestering PFAS chemicals once they’re dumped there, Fusco said. “Landfills are a sink for these compounds, not the faucet,” he said.
Under modern regulations, landfills are lined with a protective material separating the trash from the soil and groundwater underneath. The protective material is meant to protect the groundwater from contaminants.
But some landfills send their leachate to wastewater treatment plants for processing. If the wastewater facility doesn’t treat water for PFAS, the outgoing water could carry the chemicals into drinking water sources.
Vermont is interested in identifying more sources of the chemicals arriving at municipal landfills, and has considered starting a public education program to reduce the amount of incoming PFAS. For that kind of program, the state could consider separate approaches for materials that contain PFAS and are still being produced, and “legacy” waste comprised of items that are no longer manufactured, Kathan, from the state’s solid waste management program, said.
Furniture, mattresses, and clothing may contribute to the PFAS chemicals coming from landfills, according to Fusco and Vermont’s findings. To some extent, landfill waste can be a study of how products are manufactured and what consumers prefer, Fusco said.
“These chemicals are sort of an expression of consumer needs,” he said.
New Hampshire is also investigating PFAS in groundwater and surface water, sampling waste streams including landfill leachate.
The New York State Department of Health is reviewing samples from about 150 landfills to understand what happens at sites that release PFAS. California is testing for the chemicals at drinking water wells near landfills.
Catching Before Enters Wastewater
Michigan started a PFAS task force in 2017 that is taking a look at landfill leachate and collecting samples from municipal landfills throughout the state. In most cases, the task force found, landfill leachate isn’t a major contributor of PFAS in wastewater treatment facilities, according to a fiscal 2019 overview report.
A former landfill with paper mill waste in Parchment, Mich., a small town near Kalamazoo, is a “suspected” source of PFAS in the town of Parchment’s drinking water, according to the state.
“I don’t know that anyone’s concluded what the ultimate source was,” Sliver said. But in case the landfill is the source of Parchment’s PFAS, the state is looking at other sites with paper mill waste to determine if the chemicals could affect drinking water.
Michigan is looking at how much PFAS might leach out of materials like carpets, Sliver said, but isn’t considering limiting what goes into a landfill.
“Right now, it’s a matter of enforcing existing standards” for wastewater treatment and surface water quality, Sliver said.
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