The US Will Finally Stop Ignoring the 'Forever Chemicals' Poisoning Our Water

A sign at a protest in California reads, “Clean water.”
A sign at a protest in California reads, “Clean water.”
Photo: AP

The toxic class of so-called “forever chemicals” is finally getting some much-deserved attention from government officials. The Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General will be evaluating the military’s use of PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that the military has used in firefighting foam and have now contaminated groundwater sources near military bases around the country.

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The Washington Post reported on agency’s watchdog examination Tuesday. It comes a day after the California Water Resources Board found that nearly 300 drinking water wells and water sources are tainted with the contaminants. More and more states, including Michigan and New Jersey, are finding these chemicals in their drinking water supplies. That’s problematic, and not just because these manmade chemicals can last forever in the environment. PFAS have been linked to cancer, delayed learning abilities in infants and children, and increased cholesterol levels. There’s still lots scientists don’t know about PFAS, but they’ve learned enough to know they pose a danger to human health.

In California, officials tested more than 600 drinking water wells. Some of those wells had PFAS levels lower than expected. The widespread contamination in the state and elsewhere is largely due to firefighting foams military personnel used in both training exercise and emergency responses. Twenty-one military bases in California are facing contamination—the most in any state, per the Los Angeles Times. Now, the Pentagon’s watchdog officials are finally taking a close look at how this mess happened in the first place.

The Office of Inspector General wants to investigate the military’s knowledge of PFAS’s harmful impacts. The office is also set to take a look at how else the military might have been using the chemicals outside of firefighting foam. In the meantime, legislators are slowly working to build transparency with the public around contamination. California is the first state to require utilities to inform customers of any contamination in drinking water systems.

Still, PFAS exposure doesn’t come only from our drinking water. The chemicals have been found in fast food take-out containers. While a study out last week found that eating at home can reduce our exposure, people also face exposure from nonstick pans, microwavable popcorn, and even some carpets and furniture.

PFAS are seemingly everywhere these days, but there’s clearly still a lot we don’t know. This evaluation from government watchdogs should give the public some answers.

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Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

As far as soil and groundwater remediation goes, it appears that environmental scientists and engineers will have to dust off old “hog n’ haul” and “pump and treat” handbooks when it comes to PFAS remediation. Or find some old hydrogeologists sitting around the office waiting to retire.

Hog n’ haul is essentially digging up the surface soil above the water table (hog) and hauling it away for either treatment or landfill disposal. Pump and treat is extracting the groundwater via wells to capture movement of dissolved chemical, treating the water on site, and discharging (or reinjecting) the treated groundwater. These methods were first applied when the whole soil and groundwater business got going, circa news of Love Canal/Superfund. Not to leave out corner gas stations, which fall under LUST (Leaking Underground Storage Tank) regulations. At least petroleum hydrocarbons are relatively degradable when mother nature gets help from environmental consultants.

Over the past 40 odd years, soil and groundwater remediation has moved more and more towards in situ (in place) methods such as in situ bioremediation. and risk based corrective actions that consider natural attenuation, i.e. “risk it away.” The dumb joke here is that those methods don’t do shit considering the recalcitrant (i,e. forever) nature of PFAS chemicals.

Here’s a pretty good survey paper on the topic of PFAS remediation to start further reading:

The Challenges of PFAS Remediation

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954436/

Summary:

Many military bases and their surrounding communities are impacted by contamination with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFFs). Soil sorption technologies provide a promising solution to immobilize PFAS in the soil and prevent groundwater and drinking water contamination. This article is the result of a collaborative effort between Battelle and the U.S. EPA’s review of the most promising technologies.

They hope.

Battelle’s been doing this soil and groundwater remediation shit for a long time. Chiefly for government agencies.