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Identifying and Addressing the Ongoing Issue of PFAS

posted 04.21.2020

Industrial wastewater

Primary treatment of industrial wastewater.

While making dinner for your family, you overhear on the evening news the water supply for your town and the surrounding area is contaminated with a chemical. It’s in the drinking water, yet the public utility was not aware of its presence and the water treatment process does not remove it.

This was a reality in Wilmington, N.C., in June 2017, as GenX was identified in the Cape Fear River. GenX is one of thousands of surfactant chemicals included in the family known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

How PFAS Came to Be

PFAS compounds were created in the 1940s for non-stick commercial products. Since then, thousands of chemicals within this family have been created for commercial and industrial processes like non-stick coatings, stain and water-resistant products, waterproof fabrics, and aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) used for firefighting.

The properties that make these compounds so successful commercially also contribute to their reaction in the environment. The hydrophobic and hydrophilic properties allow them to be transported through water, soil, and air and bioaccumulate in both plants and animals. Their carbon-fluorine bond makes them extremely persistent. Due to their wide commercial use, mobility, and persistence in the environment, these chemicals are currently found all over the world.

Pinpointing Sources

Studies and sampling events conducted throughout the country have indicated the important correlation between elevated concentrations and PFAS sources such as industries that create and use PFAS, the repeated use of AFFF firefighting foams, as well as where PFAS consolidate after use, such as wastewater treatment plants and landfills.

As an emerging contaminant, PFAS compounds are not currently federally regulated. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a drinking water Lifetime Health Advisory for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — two of the most prevalent PFAS. While an advisory has been issued, it is not yet a standard. As the EPA continues collecting data and determining risk in accordance with its PFAS Action Plan, the existing information has led many states to take action now by creating variable PFOS/PFOA specific standards. Following the June 2017 GenX discovery, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services set a provisional health goal for GenX in drinking water. 

Developing PFAS Mitigation Solutions

As regulations are implemented, it is expected that a response or action will likely touch every industry. In the GenX case, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in upgrades to both the origin plant and downstream water treatment plant.

Wastewater treatment system

Wastewater treatment system

Terracon has a dedicated national Emerging Contaminants team comprised of scientists and engineers, including subject matter experts who are recognized leaders in the field and are contributing to the ongoing research, characterization, and management through organizations such as the Interstate Technical Regulatory Council (ITRC).

In working with clients nationwide, we understand the PFAS contaminants common to specific industries and the mechanisms by which they are released to the environment. We are also familiar with the unique sampling concerns surrounding these compounds, with their widespread presence and part-per-trillion sample detection levels. Applying this experience and knowledge is key to staying on top of the ever-changing situation as new sampling and analytical methods are created, treatment options are identified, and regulations are applied to best help our clients.


Allison Stenger is an environmental scientist in Terracon’s Raleigh office. She has experience providing environmental consulting services to both the private and public sectors, locally and across the country; specifically managing and assisting on complex investigatory and remediation projects, environmental due diligence assessments, and has focus on data management.