PFAS Mitigation Efforts

What are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals contained in many commonly used household products. PFAS are also sometimes found in the air we breathe, in some foods, in drinking water, and even in rainfall.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing new regulations, scheduled to be in effect in late 2023, that will require drinking water from public utilities like the City of Asheville Water Resources Department not to exceed new Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). The EPA will begin enforcement three years after the regulations’ final approval.

 

What is an MCL?

The Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) is the maximum level allowed for a contaminant in water that is delivered to any user of a public water system. The EPA sets the MCL, prioritizing public health while considering technical and financial barriers.

 

Can PFAS be removed from water?

Completely removing PFAS from drinking water will be impossible until the substances are no longer manufactured. They remain in the environment for a very long time, earning them their nickname,“forever chemicals.”

 

Which items contain PFAS?

PFAS are often found in everyday products such as toilet paper and personal electronic devices. The diagram below lists a few of the items that contain PFAS.

Image source: Getty Images

 

PFAS have been around longer than 50 years, and were originally included in products to help with waterproofing, and to resist heat, oil, stains and grease.

Manufacturers use thousands of different types of PFAS in consumer and industrial products, some common examples of which are:

  • Coatings on some food packaging, especially microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers
  • Non-stick cookware
  • Shampoo
  • Some cosmetics
  • Components of fire-fighting foam
  • Many industrial applications such as synthetic fiber and plastic manufacturers

 

Does the City of Asheville Water Resources Department test for PFAS?

Yes! Laboratory methods have greatly improved since 2015, when the City of Asheville Water Resources Department first tested for PFAS. These advancements have allowed for increased accuracy and consistency in detection levels. For example, detectable levels of PFAS in drinking water have gone from being measured in parts per billion (ppb) to parts per trillion (ppt). As a result, water utilities that previously recorded no detectable levels of PFAS are now reporting extremely small amounts in source water and treated water. It is important to note that these very low detectable levels are well below the EPA’s proposed limits. For example, one part per trillion is the equivalent of one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, whose average capacity is almost 700,000 gallons.

In 2019, the City of Asheville Water Resources Department participated in a PFAS detection study conducted by Duke University and the University of North Carolina. Very low concentrations – again, well under the limits the EPA is proposing – were found in the source water at Mills River, French Broad River and Bee Tree Reservoir. Upon receiving these results, The City of Asheville Water Resources Department proactively started annual measuring for PFAS at city-owned water infrastructure. That testing, done on source water and treated water, began in 2022.

 

City of Asheville Water Resources Department PFAS Test Results

 

How does the EPA calculate contaminant limits?

When a chemical or contaminant of concern is discovered in drinking water and needs to be regulated, EPA reviews the health effects data by looking at sensitive sub-populations (eg: infants, elderly) and sets a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) for the chemical. The MCLG is the maximum level of a contaminant in drinking water at which no known or anticipated adverse effect on the health of persons would occur, allowing an adequate margin of safety. The EPA sets MCLs as close as possible to the MCLG. EPA understands that staying within the limits of MCLGs is not always possible, due to environmental circumstances and cost of water treatment. Because of these constraints, EPA does not enforce MCLGs.

The EPA also uses a Hazard Index, which is a formula-based tool that is used to set an allowable limit for a mixture of chemicals based on each chemical’s Health-Based Water Concentration (HBWC). The four PFAS chemicals (PFBA, PFHxS, PFNS, HFPO-DA(GenX) were chosen because these chemicals were most commonly found across the U.S.

 

What are the proposed MCLs and Hazard Index for PFAS?

EPA is currently proposing drinking water MCLs for six of the most prominent PFAS that have been found in drinking water.

PFOA and PFOS MCLs proposed by EPA
PFOA – 4 ppt
PFOS – 4 ppt

Hazard Index proposed by EPA
PFBA, PFHxS, PFNS, HFPO-DA(GenX) – 1.0 (unitless)

The EPA chose to set a MCL for PFOA and PFOS because the agency determined that they are likely carcinogens (i.e., cancer causing) and there is no level of these contaminants that is without a risk of adverse health effects. Therefore, EPA is proposing to set the MCL for these two contaminants at 4ppt, the lowest feasible level based on the ability to reliably measure and remove these contaminants from drinking water. Again, 1 ppt is equivalent to one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The hazard index for the other 4 PFAS chemicals proposed for enforcement is a calculation. As stated above, the 1.0 index is based on health-based water concentration. Click the link below for more information on how the hazard index is calculated. The information can be found on page 2 of the document.
EPA FAQs for PFAS MCL and Hazardous Index Levels

 

What is the City doing to  manage PFAS in drinking water?

The City of Asheville’s drinking water does not exceed the PFOA and PFOS maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) and the PFBA, PFHxS, PFNS, HFPO-DA(GenX) hazard index requirement set in the proposed EPA regulations due to take effect by the end of 2023. All drinking water utilities will have three years to comply with the regulation requirements, upon final approval.

As a proactive measure until EPA standards are finalized, the City of Asheville Water Resources Department will continue to collect annual samples for PFAS compounds in source and treated water.

Once the new standards are set, treated water that is delivered to users will be tested quarterly. Compliance with EPA regulations will be determined by calculating the average detectable levels of the quarterly samples collected during a calendar year. Although EPA does not require it, the City of Asheville Water Resources Department will continue to test source water on an annual basis.

 

What’s next?

The City of Asheville Water Resources Department is currently working with an engineering firm to develop best practices for the removal of as much PFAS as possible. There is not a “one size fits all” treatment process. Implementing a new treatment technique requires multi-phased testing at each treatment facility. System implementation, construction and waste disposal costs will all be part of the calculation.

 

What can I do as a customer?

While the City of Asheville’s drinking water already meets the EPA’s proposed requirements, there are additional steps customers can take:

  • Consider a point-of-use or whole-house filter

It is recommended to use reverse osmosis or activated carbon filters that are certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) to lower levels of PFAS in drinking water. Water for consumption can be filtered for drinking, cooking, and other household consumption. It is important to follow the manufacturer’s maintenance and replacement recommendations.

  • If you consider bottled water

PFAS have been found in some brands of bottled water. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water, and they have not put enforceable limits in place yet. Bottled water distributors that are members of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) are required to test for PFAS annually. Not all bottled water distributors are members of the organization. You can check IBWA membership at https://bottledwater.org. Consumers should not purchase bottled water or any other product that contains PFAS.

  • Boiling water does NOT remove PFAS

 


Additional Information

Glossary of Terms

Health Information

EPA Article for PFAS Chemicals

EPA 2023 Proposed Rule for Regulating PFAS in Drinking Water

NC Department of Health and Human Services Presentation

EPA Ground Water and Drinking Water

EPA Health Advisories

NC DEQ Health-Related Resources About GenX, PFOA and PFAS

Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health

 


Contact Information

Brenna Cook, Compliance Manager
828-259-5962
bcook@ashevillenc.gov

 

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