PFAS in Wastewater – Treatment or Prevention?

PFAS in Wastewater – Treatment or Prevention? image
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Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been widely used in consumer and industrial projects since the 1940s. They have since been found in the air, soil, and water supply, leading to concern about potentially harmful effects on human health and the environment.

As we learn more about these man-made chemicals and their inability to break down quickly, much attention has focused on how to eradicate existing PFAS from water treatment facilities and wastewater. Treating high volume waste streams, like municipal wastewater, for PFAS is considered largely infeasible with currently available remediation technology. Due to this fact, preventing PFAS from entering the wastewater treatment plant is an important strategy in removing these compounds from the environment.  

Treatment vs. Prevention

Virtually all municipal wastewater treatment plants receive PFAS in the wastewater from upstream sources like industrial waste dischargers and household products that make their way down the drain. PFAS has become so ubiquitous in the environment that complete removal of PFAS from municipal waste streams is not feasible in the near term. As such, PFAS entering a wastewater treatment plant will be returned to the environment either in the wastewater plant discharge, or as a component of the sewage sludge generated during the wastewater treatment process. The presence of PFAS in the sewage sludge limits its potential re-use as fertilizer and increases disposal costs. 

New remediation techniques are being developed that could be applied to wastewater. For example, in Minnesota, the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul is seeking to add cationic polymers as coagulants to coax the compounds to remain in solid form. Using a slip stream to add the coagulants before the final clarifiers, the goal is to trap the solid compounds in the sludge.  

Foam fractionation, a process through which PFAS is concentrated in surface foams and subsequently skimmed off, has shown promise as a potential option for wastewater treatment yet is unlikely to completely remove PFAS from the discharge.  While both coagulants and foam fractionation applications are capable of removing PFAS from the water stream, both yield either a concentrated sludge or brine that requires subsequent disposal. 

Managing Wastewater Standards 

Preventing PFAS from entering our wastewater in the first place will be critical to limiting the distribution of these chemicals in the environment. Several states have recently implemented regulations limiting the use of PFAS compounds in consumer products. For instance, in 2020, Colorado legislation created a PFAS Cash Fund Bill to prevent contamination and exposure, beginning January 1, 2025, Maine will enforce a new bill that requires manufacturers to report intentionally added presence of PFAS in their products. Many additional states have either enacted or are in the process of implementing legislative action toward regulation or prevention. 

For industrial dischargers a thorough understanding of the supply chain inputs to the industrial process is critical. Understanding where PFAS exists in the supply chain is the first step in replacing these compounds or limiting their impact on wastewater discharges and the environment. Often, the first step in the process is accessing, tracking, and reporting your wastewater laboratory data. Through a comprehensive CleanChain process, you can gain greater transparency in your supply chain and better manage your wastewater standards.  

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS)an ADEC Innovation, has more than 40 years of experience navigating the complexities of CEQA and is an industry-leader in CEQA Streamlining. Contact us for a free consultation to learn more about how we can help with your specific requirements. 

About the author

Michael Stephenson

Michael Stephenson thumbnail

As principal scientist and regional manager, Mike has over 25 years of experience in project management, multimedia risk assessments, soil and groundwater characterization, database management, and technical support for closure projects for commercial and government clients. He has managed various soil and groundwater investigation projects designed to specialize in human health and ecologically-based risk analyses. As an accredited Environmental Risk Manager, Mike also prepares environmental liability estimates for large industrial clients.

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