From “Dark Waters” to “The Devil We Know,” Hollywood has turned contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), and perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in particular, into a household conversation. With headlines ranging from health risks to promising technologies and regulatory approaches, emerging contaminants are a concern to consumers who are looking to regulators and utilities for immediate action.

But who’s leading the conversation?

There is an opportunity for utilities to proactively lead the conversation about water quality, educating, informing, and building confidence with consumers. From educating and inviting consumers to talk about water sources and the interconnected water cycle, to demystifying the extensive work that brings water from source to tap, equipping consumers with knowledge about local water resources, treatment, and distribution may make it easier for them to become an educated part of the solution.


Building consumer confidence

The public is often hearing and learning about CECs such as PFAS from soundbites, social media, headlines, and podcasts, rather than reading a white paper or a lengthy article published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“One of the challenges utilities face is connecting with consumers in light of ever-present media and shorter attention spans. Given the complexity of this topic, utilities will need effective and thoughtful tools and focused messages to educate their communities.”


Many utilities are providing information about specific actions they are taking to address CECs, and facilitating this public conversation through public meetings, media interviews, social media, and collaborating with regulators. These actions increase transparency and build consumer confidence by illustrating knowledge and action – underlining the fact that utilities are working to do the right thing. The American Water Works Association has produced helpful industry guidance on how to engage the public and become a trusted source for information.


A regulatory ripple

Recognizing PFAS as “likely human carcinogens,” but without extensive occurrence data, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published Provisional Health Advisories of 0.4 µg/L (400 ng/L) for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and 0.2 µg/L (200 ng/L) perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in 2009. Seven years later, the EPA developed a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 ng/L for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

The EPA released a PFAS Action Plan in February 2019. In February 2020, the agency made a significant stride in implementing the plan by proposing regulatory limits for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water, and will be seeking public comment when the notice is published in the Federal Register. (At the publication of this article, there are no federally defined Maximum Contaminant Levels [MCLs] for any PFAS in drinking water.)

“While the EPA continues to develop national drinking water limits, a flurry of regulatory activity at the state level has advanced to define local regulatory targets.”

Dr. Allegra da Silva, PE, Brown and Caldwell’s Municipal PFAS Leader

Although the EPA is making progress in defining PFAS targets for drinking water, some states are looking at the impacts to the water cycle and considering targets for PFAS discharge limits for wastewater, stormwater and construction dewatering; others continue to focus first on determining drinking water limits.

Consumers are caught with limited information as regulations continue to evolve. At the local and state level, regulations to address CECs and PFAS may be driven by public concerns and politics instead of science, resulting in “regulation by legislation.” The normal regulatory process requires thorough evaluation and assessment with several rounds of review before final implementation, which is a time-intensive process.

With varied state regulatory approaches, some quick to action and others lagging, the patchwork of regulatory targets being adopted, and the lack of a consistent approach, is fueling public confusion and concerns as the industry struggles to define “safe.”


The silver lining

The industry is developing and refining solutions and technologies to address CECs, including PFAS. Technologies like reverse osmosis, granular activated carbon (GAC), and ion exchange (IX) resins have shown the most promise for drinking water treatment. Other technologies are emerging, but the challenge is finding a solution that’s scalable, practical, and feasible for implementation at small- and large-scale operations and treatment streams.

These nondestructive technologies produce residuals that must be managed and create potential for long-term liabilities for regulated parties. The destruction of PFAS in residuals and other media is an area of ongoing research and development where BC’s Technology Innovation and Leadership Team is engaged to help developers scale up from laboratory demonstrations to field applications.

“We are talking about a growing list of chemical compounds. While there are literally thousands of new compounds introduced into the market every year, many of these concerning molecules have been around for a long time. Analytical methods have evolved, and we’re now able to detect many of these compounds that have previously gone unnoticed.”

Dr. Kati Bell, PE, BCEE, Brown and Caldwell Managing Director

Our industry continues to rise to the challenge to find treatment technologies to address the chemicals we know, and will continue to develop tools for new contaminants of concern as they emerge – leveraging sound science and engineering to protect public and environmental health.

About the experts

Allegra da Silva, PhD, PE, Denver, is a recognized industry leader with expertise in water reuse, pathogen fate and transport, PFAS water and wastewater treatment, policy, and innovation.

Kati Bell, PhD, PE, BCEE, Nashville, is an industry leader in environmental engineering, with a focus on research and innovation to identify and develop innovative, efficient, and sustainable solutions.

Helene Baribeau, PhD, PE, San Diego, is a distribution system water quality leader with experience in engineering, chemistry, microbiology and water industry regulations.

Jim Claffey, PhD, PE, Upper Saddle River, N.J., provides leadership around emerging contaminants in the environment, drinking water, wastewater, groundwater, biosolids and other media.

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