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PFAS Investigative Orders Launched in California

By Jessica Brown

What are PFAS?

Perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) are fluorinated organic chemicals that stem from a broader group of man-made chemicals known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are resistant to heat, water, and oil. These chemicals have been widely used for decades in consumer products such as carpets, clothing, furniture, food packaging, some cosmetics, fire-fighting foams, and many other materials designed to be waterproof, stain-resistant or non-stick.

While seemingly helpful, their extensive presence is problematic; these chemicals do not break down in the environment. Some PFAS can also bioaccumulate, meaning the concentration of these chemicals builds up over time in our blood and organs. Studies conducted in animals exposed to PFAS tied these chemicals to increased cholesterol, changes in the body’s hormones and immune system, decreased fertility, infertility, and increased risk of certain cancers.

California State Water Board Cracks Down

The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) has sent hundreds of Investigative Orders this week to various entities to assess PFAS chemicals in soil and groundwater.

On March 6, 2019, a workshop held by the SWRCB regarding PFAS set a path for California remediation. This path implements three phases of investigation.

Investigative Timeline Phase I, started, includes issuing:

  • California Water Code 13267 letters to 31 airports with fire training or fire response sites

  • California Health and Safety Code 116400 Orders to 578 drinking water wells within a one-mile radius of the above-referenced airports

  • California Water Code 13267 Orders to 252 municipal solid waste landfills

  • California Health and Safety Code 116400 Orders to 353 drinking water wells within a one-mile radius of the above-referenced landfills

The California 13267 Orders require (in general) submission of:

  • Questionnaire within 30 days of receipt of the Order

  • Site assessment work plan within 60 days of receiving the Order

  • Submittal of the results of assessment within 90 days of work plan acceptance

Phase II, fall 2019, will include source investigation and nearby drinking water well sampling at:

  • Primary manufacturing facilities

  • Refineries, bulk terminals

  • Non-airport fire training areas

  • 2017-2018 urban wildfire areas

Phase III, fall 2019, will include source investigation and nearby drinking water well sampling at:

  • Secondary manufacturing sites

  • Wastewater treatment and pre-treatment plants

  • Domestic wells

How to Comply with an Investigative Order

Regulated entities should fulfill these orders diligently. Failure to comply could result in fines ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 per day per violation. Appropriate execution of the required testing is crucial. Because PFAS are so widely used in consumer products, the potential for cross-contamination could lead to false positives if sampling protocols are not utilized properly. Targeted water system operators will receive an order from DDW under California Health & Safety Code section 116400. Those orders will require periodic PFAS analysis, likely on a quarterly basis.

Am I Personally at Risk?

PFAS exposure typically comes from contaminated drinking water, as the chemicals cannot be easily absorbed through the skin. PFAS move easily through the ground and can contaminate public water supplies or or private drinking water wells. Such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility, such as an industrial facility where these chemicals were manufactured or used in products, or an air field which used the chemicals for firefighting. While most typical, water is not the only means of exposure. Food, food packaging, consumer products, and household dust can also pose an exposure risk.

Minimize your risk of exposure by treating chemicals in products like you treat sugar, salt, or saturated fats on food labels. Take time to assess new products before purchase by researching the company or materials used and always consider environmental focused brand alternatives.

How to Remove PFAS From Your Drinking Water

Municipalities monitor and regulate the level of PFAS in public drinking water and are required to report high or unsafe levels to the consumer. However, these chemicals can infiltrate personal wells or localized sources that are not regulated. Once in contact with water, these chemicals dissolve and only specific water treatment filters are able to remove them. Activated carbon filters and reverse osmosis are your best options for eliminating some forms of the compounds. Reverse osmosis filters are better, removing a significant amount, but not all, of the compound from contaminated water.

Reach out for more information on PFAS, assistance complying to an order, or testing in your area.

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