PFAS, Emerging Contaminants and the Impact on Environmental Due Diligence

In April of 2019 the EPA issued Draft Interim Recommendations to address groundwater contamination from Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). PFAS are a group of anthropogenic chemicals historically utilized in fire-fighting foams, non-stick coatings/cookware, carpeting, food packaging, and various industrial applications. The most publicized source of PFAS contamination originates from Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) which was utilized in fighting high-hazard flammable liquid fires, and is present in many federal departments of defense facilities throughout the United States.

PFAS chemicals do not degrade in the environment under natural conditions and can bioaccumulate in soils and groundwater. There is a growing concern of these chemicals impacting public supply wells across the United States due to the persistence of the chemical and water solubility.  Based on preliminary toxicology studies on PFAS, exposure in humans show probable links to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, kidney cancer, and testicular cancer. 

Among the many uses of PFAS chemicals: foams used to fight fires involving flammable liquids.

The water, oil, and stain repellant properties of PFAS made it an ideal additive to many consumer products.  Materials like carpeting, clothing, and food packaging which include PFAS have accumulated in landfills across the country since the 1950s.  Monitoring for PFAS in landfill groundwater monitoring programs has not routinely been conducted, especially not at the parts per trillion level being suggested as the health-based guidance level for PFAS.  Other assumed sources of PFAS contamination include but are not limited to dry cleaning facilities, sites of historic fires, airports, and fire training facilities. New sources are being investigated, and monitoring data in groundwater is limited at this time.  Low levels of PFAS have been detected in the environment and in blood samples of the general US population. 

The Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) Process (ASTM E1527-13) defines a Recognized Environmental Condition (REC) as “the presence or likely presence of any hazardous substances or petroleum products in, on, or at a property…”.  The ASTM standard further defines a hazardous substance as “a substance defined as a hazardous substance pursuant to Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).” Currently PFAS is not listed under CERCLA, and therefore does not meet the definition of a REC.  Talks surrounding increased awareness, monitoring, and regulatory authority over these chemicals are currently ongoing. 

In February of 2019 the EPA issued its “EPA’s Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Action Plan” which includes details of the agency’s plan to develop toxicity information, groundwater cleanup recommendations, drinking water standards, and how best to designate the chemicals under CERCLA.  Congress has also begun steps to addressing PFAS including the PFAS Action Act of 2019, which is currently under consideration, creation of a PFAS task force, and inclusion of PFAS requirements in the proposed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. 

While not considered a REC under the current ASTM International standard for Phase I ESAs, clients should be informed of possible future liability concerns associated with this emerging contaminant.  To date, several lawsuits have been filed against PFAS manufacturers, including 3M Corporation and DuPont, for surface and groundwater impacts caused by the chemical. Most notably, a class action lawsuit in federal court is ongoing against Wolverine World Wide, 3M Corporation, and Waste Management over dumping of waste resulting in PFAS polluted groundwater, and has included well known environmental activist Erin Brockovich.  

While PFAS is the first of these emerging concerns, it is doubtful it will be the last.  PFAS is being detected and monitored at the parts per trillion level. Detection levels of contaminants at these low levels has been possible in laboratory analyses only within the last 20 or so years, and reliability is still being improved.  Chemicals of concern and their impact to human health and the environment can now be analyzed on a much smaller scale. The growing concerns over PFAS demonstrate the need for Environmental Professionals to stay current with emerging contaminants and regulatory activities which can increase environmental risk to their clients.