The regulatory race to protect against per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination is taking place at the trace background, parts per trillion level. Ned Beecher, Special Projects Manager at the North East Biosolids & Residuals Association (nebiosolids.org), has spent the bulk of the past several years in the land of PFAS, educating the organics recycling community, regulators, and many others about these complex and pervasive compounds.
Ned’s Op Ed, “INSIGHT: The Costs to Your Community of Chasing Background Levels of PFAS,” published in the Nov. 25, 2019 edition of Bloomberg Environment, begins below. Next week, we’ll launch an article series, “Managing PFAS Chemicals In Composting And Anaerobic Digestion,” by BioCycle CONNECT Senior Editor Craig Coker.
INSIGHT: The Costs to Your Community of Chasing Background Levels of PFAS
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.