The ABCs of PFCs: A Perfluorinated Chemical Primer

The ABCs of PFCs: A Perfluorinated Chemical Primer

What Are Perfluorinated Chemicals?

Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs) are a series of compounds that have been labeled as emerging contaminants (ECs) of concern. ECs are chemicals or materials that are perceived, potential, or real threats to human health or the environment. Many times health standards have not been developed and are not available for ECs.

Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS)

Two of the more prevalent PFCs in the environment are PFOA and PFOS. Both are extremely persistent in the environment and to date have been found to be resistant to typical environmental degradation processes.

PFOS and PFOA have been used in a variety of industrial and commercial products like textiles, leather, firefighting foams, metal plating, photolithography, paper, packaging, coating additives, and pesticides. The primary manufacturer of PFOS completed a voluntary phase-out of production in 2002 and PFOS is no longer manufactured in the US, but it can be imported for limited uses. PFOA is still manufactured in the U.S., primarily for use as an aqueous dispersion agent. EPA's PFOA stewardship program had a goal of working toward elimination of emissions and product content by the end of 2015. These two compounds have been found in soil, air, and groundwater at locations all across the United States. Though additional research is ongoing, the EPA Science Advisory Board suggested that the data for PFOA show it to likely be carcinogenic to humans.

Treatment Options

Treatment using conventional treatment technologies is difficult due to the unique chemical and physical properties of PFOA and PFOS. For groundwater, the most common treatment is extraction and filtration through granular activated carbon (GAC). This technology has been shown to consistently remove PFOS at μg/L concentrations with an efficiency of 90%; however, it is not as efficient at removing PFOA and other PFCs. Other adsorbents have been utilized, including powdered activated carbon, maize-straw-derived ash, and montmorillonite. A downside of these groundwater treatments is that the spent absorptive media typically must be incinerated, which increases the overall cost of treatment.

For soil treatment, contaminated soils are usually removed and sent to landfills. Not only is this an expensive remediation alternative, it is also inefficient because the contaminants are not destroyed, just transferred to another location. PFC contaminated soils can also be incinerated, but only high temperature incinerators will completely destroy PFOS and PFOA.

Studies continue to be conducted to find more efficient, less costly, in situ treatment technologies. 

As governmental agencies sharpen their focus on PFCs and additional research is undertaken, opportunities will present themselves in the form of the development of remedial strategies, remedial options, and agency interactions. If you are aware of or involved with projects where PFCs are of interest, please help us identify any related projects.

Excerpts are from 2013 EPA Fact Sheet and August 2015 Information Paper from The Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials Federal Facilities Research Center's Remediation and Reuse Focus Group

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