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SCIEX PFAS Expert on the Latest From EPA Around Safe PFAS Drinking Water Levels

PFAS has gotten a lot of attention over the years, even surpassing lead pipes as a safe drinking water issue. Just this year, stories have emerged about PFAS in fast food packaging, yoga pants, makeup, firefighting foam and more. There have been studies considering health impacts of PFAS on certain groups of people and animals.  And now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has drastically reduced what it considers safe drinking water levels of PFOA and PFAS – laying out guidelines that cut the acceptable threshold down to nearly zero

Arlene Karidis

August 16, 2022

7 Min Read
drinking water faucet
Getty Images/iStockphoto

PFAS has gotten a lot of attention over the years, even surpassing lead pipes as a safe drinking water issue.

Just this year, stories have emerged about PFAS in fast food packaging, yoga pants, makeup, firefighting foam and more. There have been studies considering health impacts of PFAS on certain groups of people and animals.  And now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has drastically reduced what it considers safe drinking water levels of PFOA and PFAS – laying out guidelines that cut the acceptable threshold down to nearly zero.

Craig Butt, a scientist and PFAS expert at SCIEX, a technology company that manufactures mass spectrometers, explains these new federal guidelines; what led to their development; and what landfill operators should consider should they be called upon by state and local governments and regulators to monitor and remediate chemicals. And he discusses mass spectrometry and other highly sensitive analytical tools to identify and measure these very low levels of PFAS and PFOA.

Waste360: Exactly what did the U.S. EPA recently announce in terms of new safe drinking water guidelines?

Butt: Until a month ago, the guidelines for safe drinking water were 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFAS. This announcement moves the guidelines down to 4 parts per quadrillion (ppq) for PFOA and 20 ppq for PFAS. That’s an extremely drastic change—17,500 times lower for PFOA.

In addition, the EPA added two other compounds for monitoring: PFBS, a shorter version of PFOS and a compound called HFPO-DA or GenX, which was developed as an alternative to PFOA. The safe levels cited for these two compounds are much higher, which suggests that the EPA believes they are not as harmful as PFAS and PFOA.

Waste360: And these are guidelines rather than mandates. So what does that mean for who, including landfill operators?

Butt: Yes; these are guidelines; they are not legally enforceable. But since the EPA is saying that these are the safe levels of exposure, state and local regulators might use them as targets.  In addition, the general public may interpret these new markers as the standard for safe drinking water.

These guidelines apply directly to drinking water, which can be contaminated through landfills. Last year, EPA officials announced a testing roadmap that described how they wanted to focus more closely on the past lifecycle of these chemicals. They’re starting to ask questions such as, “How did the drinking water become contaminated? Could it have been from a landfill or something associated with that?”

Simply put, regulators and the public may devote more attention to what goes into landfills and the impact landfills have on the broader lifecycle of forever chemicals, specifically as it impacts the water we drink.

Waste360: Might the guidelines be a precursor to a mandate? What action may or will follow?

Butt: It’s unclear whether these guidelines are a direct precursor to a mandate, but the EPA has announced that it will release draft standards in the fall. These guidelines also indicate that federal government may look beyond drinking water to the root causes of how PFAS contaminants end up in water consumed by people.

There is precedent for increased PFAS regulations. In 2021, the EPA issued the fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5), which provided data on 29 PFAS chemicals found in drinking water.

However, many states have their own mandates, even if there is no mandate from the federal government. While some of these state mandates are more aggressive than others in terms of allowable levels of these chemicals, the EPA’s new guidelines would be the most stringent if mandated.

Ultimately, the EPA announcement tells us there is no safe level of exposure to PFAS and PFOA in drinking water.

Waste360: What might landfill operators need to change whether in their operations, investments in technology/infrastructure, etc.?

Butt: Since this is not a new federal mandate, no additional actions are required. That said, landfill operators should consider the ways that they may be called upon by state and local governments, regulators and even consumers to monitor and remediate chemicals.

Investing in sensitive analytical tools, like mass spectrometry, will help landfill operators identify chemicals and address landfill leachate.

Waste360: What led to such a huge reduction in what is considered safe levels of PFAS in drinking water?

Butt: These new guidelines represent a drastic change from what we’ve previously understood to be safe levels of PFAS or PFOA in drinking water. The EPA has stated that new scientific studies were the driving force in adjusting these guidelines from their previous levels.  It’s important to continually adjust our health advisories as new science is available. 

However, these levels are extremely low, close to nonexistence. A recent paper showed that precipitation– from remote areas of the globe, including polar regions – exceeds these levels. PFAS has also been found in Arctic and Antarctic snow.

Waste360: I understand EPA does not have the ability to detect such concentrations. How will the agency be able to act on existing levels of concern if it can’t detect them?

Butt: The EPA will need to work with contract labs to develop testing methods, and then relay those methods to landfill operators and drinking water suppliers.

Since these chemicals have been found in clothing and other materials, laboratories using mass spectrometry and other highly sensitive analytical tools will need to ensure a very clean environment. Testing for PFAS and PFOA is already challenging given the number of unidentified chemicals. If these new EPA levels must be met, only very skilled, technical labs will be able to perform the necessary analysis. 

Waste360: How might the Infrastructure Law help states to address PFAS/ emerging contaminants in drinking water?

Butt: One billion dollars over five years is a significant commitment to address PFAS. It has the potential to make a big impact. This could support the installation of centralized water treatment infrastructure, technical assistance to evaluate the risks to households, and training for local contractors to address the problem, among other strategies.

The Biden Administration is focused on supporting small or disadvantaged communities that face greater impacts from forever chemicals. These communities need resources dedicated to testing drinking water and groundwater for the forever chemicals they may be exposed to. While all people are exposed to PFAS and their health can be impacted by it, the EPA’s recent announcement takes environmental justice into account, recognizing that poor health due to PFAS exposure can compound other issues that minority or disadvantaged populations face. 

Waste360: What is mass spectrometry? How can it help the waste management industry and governments carry out EPA guidelines around PFAS?

Butt: Mass spectrometry is a useful tool for detecting chemicals in water and solid substances like soil. This very sensitive technology can detect very low levels of chemicals in a highly specific manner, ensuring that only the chemicals meant to be measured are being picked up. A mass spectrometry tool can prevent false positives from similar compounds that, if incorrectly identified by a test, could indicate a substance exceeds its allowable levels.

The EPA’s water regulation only names two PFAS and the safe water guidelines name only four, though there are 5,000 different known PFAS. High-resolution mass spectrometry can perform non-targeted analysis to provide a snapshot of other PFAS chemicals that may be present in a sample, beyond those identified by the EPA or initially understood to be in the product. These additional chemicals can break down and become PFAS of concern. Using high-resolution instruments to detect what is in a landfill can also reduce risk for waste management companies.

Ultimately, mass spectrometry will be an important tool for companies, regulators and communities to identify and measure these very low levels of PFAS and PFOA.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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