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What to Do About PFAS? Science and NGOs at Loggerheads

Maine is the latest state to ban products that use PFAS technology. The American Chemistry Council cautions that the “misguided law” will affect every major industry in the state without having a meaningful impact on public health.

Clare Goldsberry

July 28, 2021

5 Min Read
dice with do it and don't on two sides
Image: Tashatuvango/Adobe Stock

On July 14, 2021, Maine passed legislation banning thousands of products that utilize PFAS technologies. This is just the latest state to tackle the issue of PFAS, used in applications such as lining packaging to prevent leakage. In response to Maine’s legislation, the American Chemistry (ACC) council issued a statement of “strong support” for “science-based regulations that are protective of human health and the environment.”

It’s one thing to enact meaningful policies that protect consumers, said the ACC, but “as written, this misguided law will eventually ban thousands of products that Maine families and businesses rely on without providing a meaningful impact on public health. It will impact every major industry in Maine, including forest products, healthcare, textiles, electronics, and construction.

“In fact,” ACC’s statement continued, “it undermines effective product design, and, in some cases, product safety and efficacy, including for applications that are important for public safety and public health. . . . This law will also adversely impact critical uses of PFAS that are important for Maine’s broader sustainability objectives, including support for alternative energy and greenhouse gas reduction efforts.”

Destroying PFAS via waste-to-energy technology

A new report, “PFAS Fate and Transport in WTE Facilities,” from the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Applied Research Foundation (ARF) in June addressed the concerns associated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The report summarizes and analyzes the destruction of PFAS in waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities as a way to destroy them. PFAS consist of a "group of synthetic chemicals used in industrial processes and consumer products since the 1950s,” said SWANA. PFAS are found in many consumer products, including stain-resistant carpeting, non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, and cosmetics, in addition to packaging.

The problem occurs when these products are discarded as municipal solid waste. They present challenges to waste management facilities, including WTE plants, that receive these waste products. However, the EPA issued a report in 2020 identifying WTE facilities as a potential disposal option for PFAS-containing materials. In “Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS): Incineration to Manage PFAS Waste Streams,” the agency pointed out that incineration has been used “as a method of destroying related halogenated organic chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and ozone-depleting substances, where sufficiently high temperatures and long residence times break the carbon-halogen bond after which the halogen can be scrubbed from the flue gas, typically as an alkali-halogen.”

This was a topic discussed at SWANA’s Landfill Challenges Summit in June.

Based on this research, SWANA is cautiously optimistic about the “positive role that WTE facilities can play in destroying PFAS in municipal solid waste. The thermal destruction of PFAS-containing wastes in high-temperature combustion systems, including WTE facilities, may represent one of the few commercially proven options available for destroying these problematic ‘forever chemicals,’” said SWANA.

Study looks at PFAS treatment through sewage sludge incineration

In April, Brown and Caldwell, an environmental engineering and construction firm headquartered in Walnut, CA, was granted funding from the Water Research Foundation (WRF) to study the fate of PFAS through sewage sludge incineration. “PFAS are present in discharges to wastewater systems, and because of their characteristics, undergo virtually no degradation before environmental discharge,” said Brown and Caldwell. “Thermal treatment of PFAS-laden wastewater solids through sewage sludge incinerators (SSIs) offers a potential PFAS control strategy; however, with few published research studies available, the ability of SSIs to fully mineralize PFAS is unknown.”

To this end, a research team led by co-principal investigators Lloyd Winchell (Brown and Caldwell) and Dr. Detlef Knappe (North Carolina State University) has been awarded a $100,000 grant from WRF through its Tailored Collaboration Program to support utility-specific/regional issues. “The study aims to explain the fate of PFAS compounds through SSIs and provide utilities with an indication of the extent to which SSIs can eliminate or reduce PFAS emissions,” said Brown and Caldwell.

The team consists of chemists, PFAS specialists, and thermal processing experts from 10 utility partners and one trade organization, and also includes supporting partner, the City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that wants to understand PFAS at its water pollution control facility.

In its statement regarding Maine’s legislation, which is also applicable to other states that have banned PFAS in products, including firefighting foam, the ACC notes that “PFAS are a diverse universe of chemistries that are essential to modern life. These chemistries provide products with strength, durability, stability, and resilience . . . properties that are critical to the reliable and safe function of a broad range of products that are important for industry and consumers.

One-size-fits-all approach to chemical regulation is inappropriate

“Importantly, all PFAS are not the same,” stated the ACC. “Individual chemistries have their own unique properties, as well as environmental and health profiles. A one-size-fits-all approach to chemical regulation is neither scientifically accurate, nor appropriate. Furthermore, in the US, there is a regulatory process explicitly established for new PFAS chemistries, under which new PFAS are subject to review under TSCA Section 5(e) before they are brought to market.”

However, incineration of PFAS-containing materials continues to raise concerns. A report from the Environmental Working Group, “Feeding the Waste Cycle: How PFAS ‘Disposal’ Perpetuates Contamination,” said that “incomplete destruction of PFAS is dangerous because it can result in the formation of smaller PFAS chemicals and breakdown products. The incinerators can then emit those undetected PFAS and other toxic chemicals, contaminating air, soil, and water in nearby communities. Some compounds that could be emitted during PFAS incineration are also potent greenhouse gases.”

The EPA report noted that the “effectiveness of incineration to destroy PFAS compounds and the tendency for formation of fluorinated or mixed halogenated organic byproducts is not well understood. Few experiments have been conducted under oxidative and temperature conditions representative of field-scale incineration.” The EPA is currently considering multiple disposal techniques, including incineration, to effectively treat and dispose of PFAS wastes.

Research on the thermal stability of PFAS compounds, the ability to fully capture and identify PFAS compounds and their thermal decomposition byproducts, and the efficacy of emission-control technologies are areas of targeted research, said the EPA’s report. “These efforts, in cooperation with states and industries, are aimed at proper disposal of PFAS-laden wastes without media-to-media transfer of environmental release.”

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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