Water Woes: Why Is PFA Removal From Water Systems so Complex?

Posted On 14 Dec 2023
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By: Emily Newton

In sustainability, water quality reigns supreme. Yet, lurking within this crucial resource are the elusive and stubborn (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), emerging as unwelcome invaders in water systems across the globe. Their longevity and resistance to degradation pose a formidable challenge to remove PFAS from water.

What Are PFAS?

In the vast world of consumer products, thousands of PFAS silently play their roles, from non-stick pans to waterproof jackets. While making life more convenient, these chemicals come with a hidden cost.

They seep into the environment — notably water systems — leading to significant health and environmental concerns. For instance, prolonged exposure to certain PFAS can cause adverse effects like thyroid disorders, weakened immune systems and certain cancers. Moreover, they accumulate in soil and water, disrupting ecosystems and affecting wildlife.

Experts aptly gave the moniker “forever chemicals” to PFAS due to their incredibly persistent nature. These compounds resist breaking down in the environment, essentially sticking around indefinitely. This enduring presence makes it challenging to remove PFAS from water systems, necessitating advanced and often costly methods. The nickname highlights their persistence and is a reminder of their lasting impact on health and the environment.

Challenges in Detecting PFAS

In the intricate task of safeguarding water systems, detecting PFAS presents a peculiar challenge. Despite their widespread presence — with a staggering 45% of U.S. tap water containing one or more PFAS — identifying these elusive chemicals is no small feat. The difficulty lies in the sheer diversity and low concentration levels of PFAS in water, making standard detection methods struggle to catch them.

Current testing methods have limitations, often identifying only a few of the thousands of known PFAS compounds. This limitation means that many PFAS go undetected, slipping through the cracks of water quality assessments. Likewise, these tests require sophisticated equipment and expertise, adding to the complexity and cost of the detection process.

Accurate detection of PFAS is crucial for effective removal. Scientists need to know its specific types and concentrations to decide how to remove PFAs. This lack of precise detection can lead to inefficient treatment processes, potentially leaving harmful chemicals in the water.

Removal Techniques and Their Limitations

In the quest to remove PFAS from water, there are a few main ways to clean them out, but each has its problems. One standard method is using filters. Activated carbon filters catch many PFAS, but they don’t work as well on certain types and operators need to replace them often, which can be expensive. Anthony type of filter, ion exchange resins, are more specific in what they catch but also cost a lot to use and maintain.

Another method is advanced oxidation, which uses special chemicals to break down PFAS. While it can work well, it requires a lot of energy and can sometimes create other harmful substances. Also, it’s not great for cleaning large amounts of water.

One exciting discovery from a study is a kind of clay called surfaced functionalized attapulgite. This clay has been very effective, removing up to 96% of PFAS in tests. However, scientists still need to determine if they can use this method widely and affordably. So, finding new, efficient and eco-friendly ways to clean PFAS from water remains a big goal for them.

Economic and Logistical Hurdles

Removing PFAS from water systems comes with hefty price tags and logistical challenges. The reported cost of $14 to $28 billion over 20 years in Minnesota alone paints a picture of the financial burden.

One major challenge is the need for widespread changes in infrastructure. It means upgrading or building new water treatment facilities with the latest technology to handle PFA removal, which is costly and time-consuming.

Beyond the financial aspect, these infrastructure changes require careful planning and coordination. They might involve disrupting existing water supply systems, which can affect communities. The challenge is safely disposing of the filtered-out PFAs, which don’t just vanish after removal.

Balancing cost, effectiveness, and sustainability is imperative in this scenario. While investing in the most effective methods for PFA removal is necessary, it’s also crucial to consider the long-term sustainability of these solutions.

It includes the environmental impact and the ability of communities and governments to sustain these efforts financially over time. Finding this balance ensures safe water for current and future generations without imposing unsustainable financial or environmental costs.

Community and Consumer Impact

PFAS in water systems can significantly impact local communities and individual consumers. Prolonged exposure to PFAS in water can trigger various health issues in communities.

It affects the well-being of residents and leads to increased healthcare costs and potential declines in property values. For individuals, concerns about the safety of their drinking water can lead to stress and a loss of trust in public water systems.

Community awareness and activism can help address PFAS contamination. Informed communities can push local authorities and water providers for testing, transparency, and remediation efforts. Community-led initiatives can also lead to more extensive research and faster action from policymakers.

Consumer choices are also influential in advocating for cleaner, PFA-free water. Consumers can drive demand for safer alternatives by choosing sustainable products and encouraging manufacturers to eliminate these chemicals.

Additionally, supporting organizations and legislation that regulate and reduce PFAS use can lead to broader changes in industry practices and water quality standards. These collective efforts are crucial in the fight against PFAS contamination and in ensuring the safety and sustainability of water resources.

Uniting for Clear Waters

The ongoing struggle against how to remove PFAS in water necessitates persistent research and substantial investment to develop more effective, affordable and eco-friendly removal methods.

This challenge isn’t limited to scientists and policymakers — it calls for everyone’s involvement. Increased public awareness, advocacy for stricter regulations and conscious consumer choices are crucial.

Each individual’s effort contributes to a collective movement towards a sustainable future, ensuring safe, PFA-free water for all. It’s a commitment to the present and the well-being of future generations.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-chief of revolutionized

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