How the EPA is working to combat PFAS and why that is easier said than done.
Pumps & Systems

Ben Frech
Ben Frech
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been in the news for their damaging health effects and links to contamination of drinking water around the world. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is making a concerted effort to examine the risks and stop the spread of PFAS, but it has not been easy.

Pumps & Systems reached out to several industry sources for insight on PFAS and how the EPA’s efforts affect operation of water systems. Ben Frech, public relations and government affairs manager at the National Groundwater Association (NGWA), and Nick Armstrong, global product manager at De Nora Water Technologies, provided responses to challenging questions about PFAS.

P&S: Why is limiting PFAS a challenge in the U.S.?

Frech: Limiting anything that has been so prevalent in our environment and society will always be a long and difficult process because it involves movement from all stakeholders, wide-reaching regulations and usually a great deal of money. Remember, Congress banned lead pipes from being used in 1986 and we are still investing in efforts to remove and replace them across the country. 

And, while PFAS and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) chemicals have become largely phased out in the U.S., we are in a global market and the U.S. is filled with imported goods from places that have yet to take strict actions on the chemicals. PFAS is truly a big problem—and big problems can take a long time to solve.

Armstrong: When people hear the term PFAS or PFOA, that’s almost the equivalent of saying “plastic” or “metal”—neither mean anything alone. There’s steel, iron, polypropylene, other types of plastics and so on. Similarly, there are so many different compounds that can be classified as PFAS that it’s hard to fully lock in on one specifically, and [the] list of identified compounds continues to expand. Aside from classification issues, the biggest challenge utilities face on the drinking water side is having the proper equipment in place to treat for PFAS, which requires significant capital expense. Some of the larger municipalities or water suppliers may have the budget and ability to take on some of the costs, but when you’re dealing in some of the smaller rural areas, the cost of filtration and treatment after may be too much for them to bear.

P&S: How will these stricter rules on PFAS affect water treatment policies?

Armstrong: The challenge will extend all the way through the water life cycle, whether that be municipal or industrial. The tighter the drinking water standards are, the tighter the regulations will be on wastewater as well—things such as industrial runoff from manufacturing, landfill leaching, sewage treatment and so on—all of these will be affected by stricter water treatment policies. 

P&S: What changes will water utilities or municipalities have to make to how they are currently testing treated water? 

Armstrong: Most utilities are not actively testing for PFAS at this time due to lack of regulation. Therefore, the first step will be developing testing methods for PFAS and integrating that into existing procedures. Based on the data we have seen to date, there is a good chance traceable amounts of PFAS will be detected in the water, so the next step will be mapping out a course of action for treatment, including waste disposal. On the drinking water side, the most commonly used technologies are either granular activated carbon, oftentimes referred to as “GAC,” or a synthetic media, ion exchange (IX), which is formulated to specifically attract the charged ionized head and grabs all of the PFAS—small and long chain.

Nick Armstrong
Nick Armstrong
Once spent, both methods require proper disposal of media once their lifetime has been reached. Since it’s not currently listed as “hazardous waste,” the media could technically go to the landfill but the rules could change in the future. Therefore, the best plan of action is to use the media until it is spent and then send it off for incineration. Now again, that opens up new challenges due to the fume gases associated with incineration and its large carbon footprint. It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem as much as it moves the problem from one spot to another. There will always be new challenges to overcome as processes change. 

P&S: How is contamination of PFAS more prevalent than previously reported?

Frech: I imagine much of this can be contributed to the fact more people and institutions are testing for these chemicals than ever before, and we’ve also invested more at the state and federal levels in tracking these chemicals down. If PFAS is truly as prevalent as many scientists believe, then there are always going to be good odds that populated areas will have a certain level of PFAS contamination. 

Armstrong: It’s a very prevalent issue that we’re dealing with as a planet. PFAS has been found in all living organisms, from humans to plants. I even read recently it was found in the blood of polar bears at the North Pole. So, this is really a global problem that maybe doesn’t get as reported as often as it should, and it doesn’t get reported because it’s not necessarily in the public consciousness. It’s not part of global policies. Here in the U.S., there are some individual states that have warning limits, but none have a true action limit. That becomes more the issue. PFAS is everywhere. You get lunch at a fast-food restaurant—the reason the melted cheese doesn’t stick to the wrapper is because it’s coated in PFAS. You purchase stain-resistant clothing or wrinkle-free clothing—these are also coated in PFAS. These are just two examples. It’s prevalent in our day-to-day life that we’re not even aware of it. There are plenty of identified PFAS, but since we’re still in the infancy stages of testing, there are likely a lot more that have yet to be identified. But we are also in the infancy of treatment. New methods and processes are being developed to not only remove PFAS but ensure these are no longer viewed as “forever chemicals” by destroying them. 

P&S: Will drinking water have different PFAS parameters than other types of “treated” water? 

Armstrong: Ultimately yes, drinking water will have tighter specs, because it’s the No. 1 interaction with humans—that’s how these compounds make their way into our bloodstream. But I could see that having an impact down the line for water used on food via irrigation, as well as the water we feed animals that eventually become food. As PFAS get more into the public consciousness and into political policy, it goes back to my earlier point—there will be a need for tighter restrictions on all water.  


Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals with components that break down slowly over time. Many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and the environment. PFAS are found in water, air, fish and soil. Studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals. As there are thousands of PFAS chemicals found in many different products, it is difficult to study and determine health and environmental risks.


On Oct. 18, 2021, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced the agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap—laying out a whole-of-agency approach to addressing PFAS. This sets specific actions and commits to bolder new policies to safeguard public health, protect the environment and hold polluters accountable. The EPA will account for the full life cycle of PFAS, ensure science-based decision-making and protect disadvantaged communities.

Source: EPA