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Tackling widespread environmental contamination by an elusive culprit

PFAS has increasingly gained a lot of media coverage over recent years. Documentaries and films have been created to educate people about these water contaminants that have infiltrated the environment and caused mass contamination. But what exactly is PFAS? And more importantly, how can we get rid of it? Henrik Hagemann & Tali Harif, CEO and CCO of Puraffinity (IH2O’18, IH2O Asia’19) share their perspectives.

The Devil We Know (documentary) and Dark Waters (film) about PFAS

As the headlines mount, governments, regulators and communities are mobilizing in response. In March 2019, the Nordic Council published a report estimating that the health costs from human exposure to PFAS will cost Europe up to $95 billion a year. Across the United States, legal claims amounting to hundreds of millions of USD have been filed against large corporations deemed responsible for years of continuous contamination. In the town of Blades, Delaware, the U.S. EPA is considering adding the town’s groundwater to its list of Superfund sites due in part to PFAS related contamination.

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are human-made chemicals that are highly stable, highly mobile in water, and resistant to degradation and oxidation. These exact properties make PFAS extremely useful for creating products in countless industries, however, at the same time, these properties make them extremely hard to treat. The consequences are that when released into the environment — they don’t break down and can easily accumulate in human bodies if ingested (such as via drinking water).

These chemicals emerged in the mid 1940’s when large corporations developed PFOA (a certain PFAS compound) to manufacture substances like Teflon used in cookware and aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) used by firefighters. These successful applications led to widespread adoption of these chemicals in various industries. Today, they are present in products like water repellent clothing and materials, non-stick cookware, and food packaging.

Due to its widespread use, negligence in managing its discharge into the environment, such as shortfalls in implementing containment measures to deal with fire training AFFF run off water at military bases and commercial airports and in more severe cases, direct dumping of PFAS waste into water bodies and landfills. PFAS has now become a huge environmental challenge. Not only is it present in soil, but it has also infiltrated many groundwater sources.

This has led to significant human exposure and according to a UN report published in 2016, over ninety-nine percent of tested humans have PFAS in their blood.

The detrimental effects of PFAS exposure have been known for many years. In the 1980’s, a US Navy study found that AFFF is harmful and kills aquatic life. Since then, there have been over a thousand studies conducted by the US military and the U.S. EPA, among others — all of which conclude that PFAS poses a huge environmental threat to ecosystems and public health. In 2012, a landmark medical study by the C8 Science Panel found a ‘probable link’ between PFAS exposure and six diseases: testicular cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Although the true health implications from PFAS exposure are not fully understood, reports suggest both health and remediation costs will be substantial.

The role of large corporations in actively contributing to the widespread environmental and health impacts is still being unravelled. Leading manufacturers have been accused of withholding information and failing to inform the population about the severity of pollution from their products. One of the most famous cases is in Parkersburg, Virginia; significant amounts of PFAS were dumped into a local landfill polluting the drinking water supply of the town’s 80,000 inhabitants. The lawsuit issued was settled in 2017 with the manufacturing company agreeing to pay the town $671 million. Since then, other companies have voluntarily disclosed unlawful PFAS discharge and are also paying out large sums in settlement agreements as a result.

In 2006, at the recommendation of the U.S. EPA, manufacturers agreed to phase out two PFAS compounds (PFOS and PFOA). But there are others continually being manufactured, including “replacements” such as GenX. Widespread legacy contamination of groundwater sources still remains a harsh reality, with clean-up anticipated to take decades, if not centuries in some cases. Therefore, ensuring effective treatment measures are implemented and mitigating further contamination are burning issues that require immediate action.

Over the last decade, the PFAS problem has driven an “awakening” both in the US and Europe. Stringent drinking water and discharge limits have been implemented and new laws have been passed related to consumer products containing PFAS. In addition to several class action and state lawsuits filed more than two dozen bills are making their way through the U.S. Congress that address PFAS in some way.

Despite the imminent need and drive to treat PFAS and remove it from water, new treatment technologies that effectively tackle the problem have been slow to develop [PFAS treatment challenges at US water utility]. There has been a rush towards established technologies like granular activated carbon (GAC) and ion exchange (IEX). But since these solutions are not designed primarily for PFAS removal, they cannot tackle a range of pollution scenarios. These approaches use materials that are not reusable, have low efficiency, high operational costs, and generate high volumes of waste — making them unsustainable, short-term solutions.

These shortfalls have paved the way for the development of solutions engineered specifically to combat PFAS. Adsorption is a compelling alternative to both effectively removing and concentrating PFAS for efficient disposal. We at Puraffinity have developed an engineered adsorbent for PFAS capture and removal. Commercial-scale pilots are underway in the US and Europe, and new deployment opportunities are emerging in Southeast Asia.

Underpinning Puraffinity’s patented technology are highly specialized molecular receptors that are attached to a substrate in the form of granular media. Since the receptors are customizable, depending on the PFAS compounds that require targeting, Puraffinity can design tailored solutions for widespread applications, ranging from airports and military installations to groundwater remediation.

Initial tests have successfully demonstrated over 99% PFAS removal within a range of challenging contaminated waters, thus ensuring compliance with the most stringent EU standards. Our technology has a larger capacity to adsorb PFAS compounds than our competitors, and in addition the selective receptors are highly efficient, meaning that the media can remove PFAS more quickly and with less material than competing technologies. The result is a highly effective PFAS removal technology, providing up to 35% total expenditure savings per volume of treated water.

Our deep understanding of the PFAS crisis and shortfalls in current technology to address the problem has propelled our technology development. The need for innovative approaches to both treat legacy contamination and mitigate further threats is at the forefront of Puraffinity’s activities. Follow Puraffinity as we continue our journey to protect the environment and human health by providing efficient and sustainable solutions. @Puraffinity