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What to do about PFAS?
Facility managers have likely heard about the presence of PFAS in drinking water, and notably, in many other products that consumers use every day.
But what can managers do about PFAS to help ensure their building occupants are consuming safe water? According to one expert on the subject, nothing that can realistically impact the quality water flowing through their facilities.
“PFAS are physiochemical properties that are very attractive in commercial uses,” says Maile Lono-Batura, director of sustainable biosolids programs with the Water Environment Federation. “They came on the scene 40-plus years ago. They came on because they were a chemical that was somewhat indestructible. But it turns out, they can also be used in consumer products.”
PFAS — short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances or “forever chemicals” — are used to make such items as non-stick pans and fire-fighting foams. They are also included in the contents of fast-food wrappings and also used to make atomic bombs.
So, it’s no surprise that PFAS make their way into drinking water at levels high enough to potentially pose health risks. One expert indicated that 99 percent of every person in the U.S. has PFAS in their blood. The chemical can be responsible for such health conditions as high cholesterol and liver cancer, among other ailments.
As years have passed and scientists learn more about the chemical, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has lowered the safety threshold for the chemical in drinking water. In 2009, the EPA’s safety threshold was 70 parts per trillion for two PFAS. In June, the EPA lowered the health advisory to .004 parts per trillion for some components and .02 parts per trillion for others.
To put that number into another perspective, .004 parts per trillion is equal to 1 penny out of $1 billion.
Water treatment facilities work to ensure that drinking water remains healthy, something that brings to mind the recent public water crises in Jackson, Mississippi, and Flint, Michigan.
But it’s a costly venture. It could cost water utilities up to $1 million a week to test and treat for the chemicals entering water. At that price, it’s nearly impossible for individual institutional and commercial facilities to test themselves.
Companies are currently developing tests and processes to help better measure the amount of PFAS in water. While it may seem that managers are handcuffed as to how to address them, there is one way they can try to ensure their occupants stay safe.
“Phase out and ask to phase out PFAS products in their institutions,” Lono-Batura says. “Don’t accept certain foodservice-wear, things like that. These are practical things that institutions can employ. This is a global issue, but at least it gives some sort of example of what people can do by limiting use.”
Dave Lubach is the managing editor of the Facilities Market.