Advancements in Wastewater Cleaning of PFAs

Polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAs for short, include thousands of chemicals found in all kinds of products. They’re an area of growing concern as they’re found in the blood of both animals and humans. PFAs are also being found in the air, the soil, and water. All of that has been a target of change for years, and the EPA is finally taking the necessary steps.

While research is ongoing, it’s believed that exposure to PFAs is harmful. That much is clear. As PFAs make their way into the water, removing them from wastewater is important. It’s leading to advancements in the processes that can be used to remove PFAs from wastewater in wastewater treatment plants and grant money communities can apply for to have financial help at upgrading their equipment.

What Are PFAs?

So, what are PFAs? PFAs are manufactured chemicals found in many household and commercial products. They’re called “forever chemicals” because they don’t easily break down. They’re there building up in the soil, groundwater, and the air.

Many PFAs contain organic fluorine and carbons. Carbon-fluorine is one of the strongest bonds there is, so PFAs last forever. Some can damage the ozone layer when they become airborne. In your body, research is ongoing into exactly what harm they cause.

When it comes to public health, the fact that PFAs don’t break down easily is alarming as studies find that 97% of people have PFAs in their bloodstream. It’s believed that PFAs can impact fertility, increase the risk of certain cancers, and reduce immune system function. PFAs may increase the risk of obesity and metabolism.

There are more than 9,000 kinds of PFAs. Do you have non-stick coatings on your pots and pans? There are PFAs in those coatings. Do you have stain-resistant clothing, furniture upholstery, or carpeting? Again, there are PFAs. You’ll find PFAs in things like cosmetics, personal care products, paint, lawn and garden pesticides, water-resistant clothing, microwave popcorn packaging, and takeout food containers.

Steps have been taken to reduce the number of PFAs in things like water bottles, food containers, and dishware, which is good as it has started to reduce the numbers of PFAs in people and the environment. But, they’re not completely gone.

The government’s attention is turning to what can be done to keep PFAs out of water that’s cleaned and released from wastewater treatment plants. The next steps are to find more effective ways at removing them from wastewater. It’s believed that a new method can help with that, and so far it’s proving to be extremely effective.

What Is the New Method of Cleaning PFAs?

University of California, Riverside found a way to clean PFAs from wastewater using a photochemical reaction. The process involves the addition of iodide and sulfite to wastewater that was in the treatment process. When those two additives are exposed to UV lighting, iodide speeds up a reaction between the PFAs and sulfite, destroying up to 90% of the PFAs in less time and with less energy. It becomes a cost-effective, effective way of removing PFAs.

If wastewater treatment plants switched to this process, it can lead to almost all of the PFAs in wastewater being removed before the wastewater goes back into lakes, rivers, and ponds. This keeps fish and animals from being exposed to as many PFAs, which in turn means humans wouldn’t be eating fish that contain higher PFA levels. Plus, it’s faster, so treatment facilities save money on energy consumption.

How Are PFAs Currently Handled in Wastewater Treatment?

Removing PFAs from wastewater or public water sources can be a costly process. The most effective methods involve the use of high-pressure membranes, anion exchange resin, and granular activated carbon that is formulated specifically to remove PFAs from wastewater. As it’s expensive, it’s not really something that many water districts have thought about until recently. Things are changing, however, as the EPA is taking steps to check for and address contaminated water systems.

In September 2021, the EPA changed three requirements to try to limit the amount of PFAs going to drinking water supplies, waters with aquatic animals, and bodies of water that are used for recreation. Before wastewater can be released to those three water supplies, PFAs from manufacturing plants, metal finishing facilities, and poultry/meat processing plants must have been treated to meet effluent guidelines.

How Could a Wastewater Treatment Plant Incorporate This New Process?

As treatment processes improve, what can you do to be ready? Start by applying for grants.

With 2022 came changes to the Clean Water Act. The new Infrastructure Law is marking millions of dollars to help fight PFAs from entering water systems. The goal is to reduce PFAs being released to bodies of water or being returned to public water systems. Even if there are no standards required in your area yet, you may need to issue health advisories if the wastewater levels exceed the EPA guidelines of:

  • GenX Chemicals – 10 parts per trillion/Minimum reporting at 5 ppt
  • PFBS – 2,000 parts per trillion/Minimum reporting at 3 ppt
  • PFOA – 0.004 parts per trillion/Minimum reporting at 4 ppt
  • PFOS – 0.02 parts per trillion/Minimum reporting at 4 ppt

Now is a good time to address making changes. In June 2022, the EPA announced $1 billion in grants from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. These grants will be used to help establish wastewater treatment systems that can remove PFAs from drinking water supplies. If your wastewater treatment plant provides drinking water to a community, especially small or low-income communities, it’s important to apply for these grants and take the next steps to improve water quality.

Even the smallest changes can help. If there are manufacturing plants, metal finishing facilities, or meat and poultry processing plants in your area, make sure they’re treating their industrial wastewater before releasing it into sewers. They should be, and your district should be making sure they’re taking steps to properly treat wastewater before it’s released.

Right now, the tests on iodide and sulfite are still in the early stages. But, you could take some steps to get ahead and be ready to try it out. Look into UV disinfection systems. They’re currently used to help kill germs and microbes. As this technology could become helpful in removing PFAs, it’s a good time to look into using grants to upgrade your existing system with things like granular charcoal filtration and UV disinfection.

Lakeside Equipment offers a full range of equipment to help your wastewater treatment plant clean water in the most cost-effective way possible. Whether you want to upgrade existing equipment or add new equipment and filtration solutions for cleaner water, our experts can help you out. Reach us online or by phone to learn more.