The 20th century technological revolution brought forth a wide range of new materials and chemicals that got used extensively for their properties. It turns out not all of them are healthy for the environment and humans, hence is why it’s becoming more prudent to check their presence at a property during the due diligence process. One class of chemicals getting attention in recent years is Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
PFAS are a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s. These substances possess a number of useful properties, and are used in stain repellants, non-stick cookware, firefighting foams and hundreds of other products.
There are thousands of different PFAS compounds, some of which have been more widely used and studied than others. Two of the most notable ones are Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS). They have been some of the most widely used and subsequently studied chemicals in the PFAS group. The production of PFOA and PFOS have been replaced in the United States with other PFAS in recent years.
There are two reasons that agencies, scientists and environmental professionals are paying attention to PFAS chemicals:
- Their widespread production and use in products
- Their ability to move and persist in the environment
Surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that most people in the United States have been exposed to some PFAS. Most known exposures are relatively low, but some can be high, particularly when people are exposed to a concentrated source over long periods of time. Some PFAS chemicals can accumulate in the body over time.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established Regional Screening Levels (RSLs) for the protection of groundwater for PFOS and PFOA. Although no Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) in drinking water has been established by the EPA, in 2016 the EPA has established a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for the sum of PFOA and PFOS. Update: In June 15, 2022, EPA Issued an updated Health Advisory on PFAS in drinking water.
PFAS Chemicals and ASTM E1527-21
Because PFAS are not currently designated as listed hazardous substance pursuant to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), they are treated as “emerging contaminants”.
On November 1, 2021, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) approved a new standard for conducting Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs), ASTM E1527-21. Regarding “emerging contaminants”, ASTM E1527-21 states the following:
There are some substances that non-environmental professionals and others may assume to be hazardous substances that are not defined (or not yet defined) as hazardous substances under CERCLA through interpretation by EPA regulations and the courts. These substances may include: (1) some substances that occur naturally or through biological digestion (for example, methane), and (2) substances about which human understanding is evolving (for example, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as “PFAS”). These and any other “emerging contaminants,” where they are not identified as a hazardous substance by CERCLA, as interpreted by EPA regulations and the courts, are not included in the scope of this practice. Some of these substances may be considered a “hazardous substance” (or equivalent) under applicable state laws. In those instances, where a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment is performed to satisfy both federal and state requirements, or as directed by the user of the report, it is permissible to include analysis and/or discussion of these substances in the same manner as any other Non-Scope Consideration.
Because PFAS are not currently designated as listed hazardous substances, the evaluation of PFAS is beyond the scope of an ASTM-compliant Phase I ESA. This means that PFAS contamination would not be considered a Recognized Environmental Condition (REC) under Phase I report, however, the potential for PFAS impacts can be considered a non-scope Business Environmental Risk (BER).
Not all environmental due diligence consultants may be considering PFAS in their evaluation of environmental risk. If you or your business are concerned that PFAS may be present on a site, it is important to direct the environmental professional to conduct this additional evaluation as part of a Phase I ESA.
PFAS Screening Can Vary by State
In addition to the EPA’s a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 ppt for the sum of PFOA and PFOS, individual states have developed various screening levels for PFAS chemicals.
Using California as an example, the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), through the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board (SFBA-RWQCB), developed Interim Final Environmental Screening Levels (ESLs) for PFOS and PFOA. This information was published by the SFBA-RWQCB in their Interim Final ESLs for PFOS and PFOA memo, dated May 27, 2020 (May 2020 Memo).
In that memo, recommended Interim Final ESLs were developed for soil and groundwater under various exposure scenarios. Like the EPA’s health advisory level, these Interim Final ESLs are generally in the ppt level. The CalEPA, via the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), has also proposed Public Health Goals (PHGs) for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water.
Twenty-two other states have adopted similar maximum concentration limits (MCLs), screening levels or guidance concentrations for PFAS in drinking water.
Sources of PFAS Contamination
PFAS have been used extensively in consumer products such as carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food, and other materials (e.g., cookware) designed to be waterproof, stain-resistant or non-stick. In addition, they have been used in fire-retarding foam and various industrial processes.
An early evaluation of PFAS use concluded the four major sources of PFAS are fire training/fire response sites, industrial sites, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants/biosolids; however, “industrial sites” can include many prior uses at a site where the potential for PFAS contamination is uncertain.
The SFBA-RWQCB’s May 2020 Memo states Regional Water Quality Control Board staff are overseeing PFAS investigations and have identified the following activities/facilities for possible occurrence testing:
- Fire-fighting practice training areas
- Electronics manufacturers
- Former chrome plating facilities, non-chrome metal plating and finishing facilities
- Mining industry (copper, gold, aluminum, vanadium, and uranium)
- Textile manufacturers and processors
- Furniture manufacturers and upholsterers
- Carpet manufacturers
- Cardboard/paper packaging manufacturers
- Surface coatings/paints/varnish manufacturers and high-volume users
- Manufacturers of non-stick or known PFAS-containing products such as dental floss, non-stick cookware, food packaging materials, waterproof and water repellant textiles, polishes waxes, cleaning products, medical garments, adhesives, cosmetics, hair conditioners, and lotions.
Using California as an example, the State Water Board’s Division of Water Quality (DWQ) and Division of Drinking Water (DDW), in coordination with Regional Water Boards, developed an investigation approach to evaluate the presence of PFAS throughout California. The State Water Board currently tracks locations with PFAS Investigation Orders and other locations with PFAS data on California’s GeoTracker PFAS Mapper. Facilities with PFAS Investigation Orders can appear on regulatory database searches as a PFAS case.
In 2019, DWQ sent statewide investigation orders to many commercial airports, municipal solid waste landfills, and chrome plating facilities. Similar orders were sent to publicly owned treatment works, oil refineries and bulk terminals in 2020 and 2021. DDW also sent orders to hundreds of public water systems, based on proximity to the investigation facilities, prior system detections, and the need for continued monitoring. That effort continues as the list of facilities under investigation grows and PFAS are detected.
How can VERTEX Assist with PFAS and the Due Diligence Process?
VERTEX employs Environmental Professionals throughout the country experienced in identifying prior site uses where CERCLA defined hazardous substances and emerging contaminants are suspected as part of the Phase I ESA process. VERTEX has also conducted subsurface investigations at fire-fighting training areas, airports and industrial facilities in several states to identify PFAS impacts for due diligence and site remediation activities.
If you should have any questions or need additional information regarding this subject, please reach out to VERTEX by calling (781) 952-6000 or contact us here.