Challenges of PFAS Remediation (2023)

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Challenges of PFAS Remediation (1)

About Author ManuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptPublic Access

Mil's manuscript; available in PMC 2019 January 1.

Published in final edited form as:

Miles Eng. January 1, 2018; 110(712): 58-60.



(Video) Bringing the Heat Webinar Series: Addressing PFAS Remediation Challenges

dr. Ramona Darlington,dr. Edwin Barth, idr. John McKernan

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Many military bases and their surrounding communities are affected by per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination from aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF). Soil sorption technologies offer a promising solution to immobilize PFAS in the soil and prevent ground and drinking water contamination. This article is the result of a joint effort between Battelle and the US EPA to review the most promising technologies.

(Video) Challenges of PFAS in Groundwater: Lessons Learned from Michigan’s Survey of Community Water

Since the 1960s, aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs) have been the standard for fighting oil fires and conducting firefighting drills on U.S. military bases. The chemical properties of synthetic foam make it ideal for quickly extinguishing oil fires. But recent studies have raised concerns about the long-term effects of soil and groundwater contamination on the environment and human health around sites where the foams have been widely used.

AFFF contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of chemicals under increasing regulatory and public pressure. Report 20161documented PFAS contamination of drinking water in communities in 33 states. Most of these communities are located near military bases where numerous firefighting exercises have been conducted. New responses are needed to help the military clean up or contain PFAS contamination in these locations.

Problem PFAS om

PFAS consists of a family of thousands of individual chemicals used in many industrial and commercial products. As a group, PFAS chemicals are highly resistant to heat, water, and oil, making them very useful for many industrial applications and consumer products ranging from non-stick cookware to stain-resistant fabrics. AFFF was developed in the 1960s by the US Naval Research Laboratory to extinguish fuel fires more quickly. In military locations, accumulations of PFAS are commonly found near firefighting training areas, hangers, airstrips, and accident sites. High accumulation of PFAS is also associated with sludge removal plants and oil-water separators.

The same chemical properties that make PFAS so effective in fire-fighting foam and other products make them extremely difficult to remediate. PFAS chemicals have very limited reactivity. As a result, PFAS are very persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative in human and animal tissues. This is especially true for "long chain" PFAS chemicals such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which until recently was commonly used in firefighting foams. Some PFAS chemicals can also travel through the environment, meaning soil contamination can sometimes reach groundwater.

Toxicology studies have raised concerns about potential toxic effects on humans exposed to PFAS, including potential effects on developing fetuses and young children. Other studies have pointed to possible links to cancer, immune system disorders and fertility problems. For these reasons, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set lifetime health advisory levels for PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), another long-chain PFAS chemical, at only 70 parts per trillion.

Soil sorption technologies for PFAS remediation

The persistence and mobility of PFAS in the environment make it a serious long-term problem for military bases. Natural attenuation and long-term monitoring are not effective strategies for PFAS. Active treatment strategies must be used to clean up or contain the contamination so that it cannot leach from the contaminated soil into the groundwater or drinking water supply.

Most of these treatment strategies are still in their infancy and require further research and validation in the field. A promising approach currently being used is sorption, where a material with PFAS-adsorbing properties is introduced into a contaminated area to immobilize (but not destroy) PFAS. While sorption technologies exist for both water and soil, PFAS sorption technologies in soil can be very useful since PFAS is released at the surface and some PFAS chemicals have a strong affinity for soil. The aim of these treatments is to immobilize PFAS in the soil to prevent it from leaching into groundwater.

Battelle recently completed a literature search for EPA to determine which soil sorption technologies, based on carbon, resins, minerals, biomaterials and molecularly imprinted polymers, hold the most promise for PFAS contaminated sites.

Biomaterials, as a class, may be less effective for PFAS contamination than other options because they are likely (or have the potential) to biodegrade over time. Resins also have significant limitations for use in soil treatment and are costly compared to other options. Carbon and mineral treatment shows promise for the treatment of PFAS contaminated soils.

(Video) PFAS Remediation


Carbon sorbents can be classified into three broad groups: granular activated carbon (GAC), powdered activated carbon (PAC), and multi-walled carbon nanotubes (CNT). Of these, CNT has the highest sorption capacity, followed by PAC. However, GAC turned out to be the most suitable for treatment.

The non-polar functional carbon groups make it very useful for hydrophobic contaminants such as PFAS. However, all forms of carbon are often contaminated by high concentrations of organic matter in sediments or soils. Studies also suggest that they work better for low concentrations of PFAS than for higher concentrations.


Mineral options for PFAS sorption include organoclays (organically modified phyllosilicates - eg, montmorillonite, kaolinite, and palygorskite), iron oxides (goethite, hematite), and silica.

Organoclays are the most studied. They have a high sorption capacity and modifications can increase their sorption capacity. Unmodified organoclays have a surface that is hydrophilic, making them ineffective against hydrophobic compounds such as PFAS. However, modification with surfactants and amino or amino groups increases the ability to adsorb PFAS compounds such as PFOA and PFOS.

Like organoclays, silica-based sorbents can be modified with surfactants to improve PFAS sorption. However, due to their high cost, their use is mostly limited to solid phase extraction for laboratory analysis of PFAS compounds.

Iron oxide minerals have been shown to have a strong affinity for PFAS compounds. Some studies have shown that they outperform modified organoclays in their sorption capacity, but more research is needed.

Considerations when choosing a sorbent

The overall effectiveness of the sorption treatment of PFAS compounds will be influenced by several variables. That includes:

  • Media Properties: The effectiveness of a particular sorbent is affected by the media (e.g., soil) in which it is used. The pH and the presence of inorganic and organic ions influence the sorption efficiency. The uptake of PFAS decreases in a more alkaline environment. The natural organic matter present in the soil will greatly reduce the sorption capacity of activated carbon. Inorganic ions affect the sorption capacity of organoclay by changing the charge of the sorbent.

  • Characteristics of PFAS: PFAS chemicals are broadly categorized by the length of the carbon fluoride chain that forms their backbone. Long-chain compounds (with six or more carbon atoms) tend to adsorb more strongly than shorter-chain compounds. The functional groups attached to the chain also have an influence; sulfonate functional groups lead to stronger adsorption.

    (Video) Understanding the In Situ Treatment of PFAS Using PlumeStop Colloidal Activated Carbon

  • Properties of the sorbent: The physical and chemical properties of the sorbent have a major influence on the sorption capacity. Smaller particles or highly porous materials have a higher surface area and a higher sorption rate. More basic or positively charged sorbents have better performance than more acidic or negatively charged materials.

Stabilization of PFAS in military bases

Soil sorption technologies are likely to be an important part of the solution to PFAS pollution on military bases. By stabilizing PFAS compounds in the soil, we can prevent them from entering groundwater or drinking water and limit their ability to interact with living organisms in the ecosystem.

Finding answers for PFAS-contaminated military bases is urgent. There are an estimated 26,000 PFAS contaminated sites in the US and six million Americans are believed to be affected by PFAS contaminated drinking water2. The vast majority of these communities are located around military sites where AFFFs have been used. While AFFFs are far from the only source of PFAS contamination in the environment, their high concentrations on and around bases and the specific chemical composition of PFASs used in fire-fighting foams make these locations a priority. Stabilizing PFAS in the soil on and around these military bases will significantly reduce the potential for damage to surrounding communities.

Information about the employee

Dr Ramona Darlington,Senior research associate, Battelle.

dr. Edwin Barth,Senior ingenieur, US Environmental Protection Agency.

dr. John McKernan,Acting Division Chief, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


1.Hu Xindi C. Detection of Poly and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in U.S. Drinking Water Associated with Industrial Sites, Military Firefighting Training Areas, and Wastewater Treatment Plants. [Accessed July 14, 2017];Environmental science and technology letters.9 augustus 2016;3(10):344-50. doi:10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00260. [PMC free article][PubMed] [CrossRef][Google-expert]

2.Hu, Xindi C.

(Video) PFAS Characteristics, Fate and Challenges in Waste Management


Why are PFAS difficult to remove? ›

PFAS are very soluble in aquatic systems, making them difficult to remove from various water sources. The chemical nature of PFAS makes biodegradation, photolysis and hydrolysis more challenging.

What are some of the specific challenges associated with sampling water for PFAS compounds? ›

PFAS Sampling Challenges

The sheer quantity of PFAS compounds in existence, low detection levels required, and challenging field sampling practices make up some of the other difficulties surrounding PFAS detection and delineation. Many field materials typically used in sampling may contain PFAS.

What are the remediation methods for PFAS? ›

It is currently known that three treatment processes can be effective for PFAS removal: granular activated carbon, ion exchange resins, and high-pressure membrane systems.

What are the problems with PFAS? ›

What are the health effects of PFAS?
  • Increased cholesterol levels. Decreased vaccine response in children.
  • Changes in liver enzymes. Increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.
  • Small decreases in infant birth weights. Increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.

What is the new way to destroy PFAS? ›

Farewell to 'forever' – Destroying PFAS by grinding it up with a new additive. Researchers destroy PFAS found in soils by grinding them with metal balls and boron nitride. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are potentially harmful substances known as “forever chemicals” because they are so difficult to destroy.

What technologies exist to remove PFAS from water? ›

There are a few technologies that have been widely tested for PFAS removal, including reverse osmosis (RO), granular activated carbon (GAC) filters and ion exchange. All three come in point-of-entry (POE) configurations.

How do you remediate PFAS in groundwater? ›

The most common treatment approach for achieving PFAS risk removal is groundwater extraction and filtration. This approach involves interceptor wells that pump groundwater to the surface and filter out the PFAS using granular activated carbon or ion-exchange resins.

What cities have the highest PFAS? ›

Some of the highest PFAS levels detected were in samples from major metropolitan areas, including Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City.

What is the biggest exposure to PFAS? ›

Drinking water is one of the most significant pathways of PFAS exposure. PFAS have contaminated the tap water of at least 200 million people in 33 states and Puerto Rico, as well as groundwater in at least 38 states.

How do you remediate PFOA? ›

Reverse Osmosis: Reverse osmosis (RO) is an effective method of micro-filtration. It is known for the removal of ions, chemicals, and micro-sediment filtration via a semipermeable membrane. Commonly, the reverse osmosis technology is a very effective treatment of drinking water to remove PFOA and PFOS.

What is EPA doing about PFAS? ›

In February 2023, EPA announced the availability of $2 billion from President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to address emerging contaminants, including PFAS, in drinking water across the country.

Why are PFAS an environmental crisis? ›

Many PFAS, including perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), are a concern because they: do not break down in the environment, can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources, build up (bioaccumulate) in fish and wildlife.

Is it impossible to avoid PFAS? ›

It's impossible to completely avoid PFAS, a class of human-made chemicals that has been linked to a growing list of serious medical concerns. There are thousands of types of PFAS, and many are not well studied. Yet they're in everything from stain-resistant rugs to dental floss, outdoor gear, food packaging and soil.

What state has the most PFAS? ›

Michigan has the highest levels of PFAS in the U.S.

What is the cheapest way to remove PFAS from water? ›

The cheapest way to remove PFAS from water is typically by using activated carbon filters. These filters are relatively low cost, easy to install, and require minimal maintenance compared to other filtration methods. However, it's essential to regularly replace the filter cartridges to maintain their effectiveness.

Do Brita filters remove PFAS? ›

Common water pitcher brands like Brita and Pur are perfectly fine if you want to reduce bad-tasting chlorine and contaminants like heavy metals. But they weren't designed to remove PFAS or even reduce their concentration in your tap water.

What is being done about PFAS in water? ›

In May 2022, EPA took an important step forward to protect people from PFAS by adding five PFAS to a list of risk-based values for site cleanups. These values, known as Regional Screening Levels and Regional Remedial Management Levels, help EPA determine if response or remediation activities are needed.

Does bottled water have PFAS? ›

Does bottled water contain PFAS? PFAS have been found in some brands of bottled water. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not put enforceable limits in place yet.

How long does it take PFAS to break down? ›

Some forms of PFAS can take over 1000 years to degrade. This persistence is why the actions we take today have such a huge effect on the state of our world tomorrow. A paper bag might disintegrate and slowly disappear from sight, but the chemicals left behind could be damaging the environment for thousands for years.

What is a major source of PFAS in groundwater? ›

The major sources of PFAS contamination in drinking water, groundwater, soils, and air include: Fire training/fire response sites. Industrial sites. Landfills.

What is the current research on PFAS and its health effects? ›

Current peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to: Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women.

What are remediation techniques for groundwater contamination? ›

There are two types of groundwater remediation: in-situ and ex-situ. In-situ means in place or on-site, while ex-situ means off-site. In-situ involves cleaning the groundwater where it is currently situated, whereas ex-situ involves having the groundwater excavated and then taken off-site.

What bottled water has the most PFAS in it? ›

Sparkling Water Brands That Contain High Levels of PFAs
  • Topo Chico PFAS (9.76 ppt)
  • Polar Natural Seltzer Water PFAS (6.41 ppt)
  • Bubly Sparkling Water PFAS (2.24 ppt)
  • Poland Spring Sparkling Water PFAS (1.66 ppt)
  • Canada Dry Sparkling Seltzer Water PFAS (1.24 ppt)
  • LaCroix Natural Sparkling Water PFAS (1.16 ppt)

Which US states ban PFAS? ›

More U.S. States Ban PFAS-Containing Products
CategoryClass B Firefighting foam – discharge or use for training or testing purposesFood Packaging – distribution, sale or offer for sale
U.S. StateEffective dateEffective date
ArizonaJan. 1,2020
ArkansasJan. 1, 2022
CaliforniaJan 1, 2023
19 more rows

What states have banned PFAS? ›

For example, California, Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New York and Wisconsin enacted legislation regulating PFAS in firefighting foam and firefighting equipment. New York also established requirements for consumer notices for the use of PFAS and other chemicals in children's products.

How many Americans have PFAS? ›

One report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), found PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans.

Can you remove PFAS from your body? ›

While PFAS cannot be removed from the body, you should avoid the following common PFAS containing products: Packaged foods: Especially those with oil-repellent coatings, such as microwave popcorn bags, fast-food packages, and wrappers for greasy foods.

Do any water filters remove PFOA? ›

Water filtration technologies that remove PFAS

The LifeStraw Home Pitcher is one of the most effective products to combat PFAS; its dual filtration technology combines membrane microfiltration with activated carbon and advanced ion exchange technology to remove PFOA and PFOS from water.

Can you filter forever chemicals out of water? ›

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have launched real-world pilot tests of their water treatment method. Canadian researchers said they have developed a method to filter toxic “forever chemicals” from water and potentially destroy the long-lasting compounds permanently.

Does distilled water have PFAS? ›

Distillation is a highly effective method of removing PFAS from water. On average, distilled water is free from around 99% PFAS. PFAS have a higher boiling point than water, which means they're left behind in the distillation chamber when water evaporates.

What is Biden doing about PFAS? ›

His Bipartisan Infrastructure Law invests $9 billion over five years to help communities that are on the frontlines of PFAS and other contamination reduce levels in drinking water.

Are PFAS going to be banned? ›

When Do These State Laws Start to Come into Effect? California and New York's PFAS food packaging ban laws come into effect at the start of 2023. A related law in Maine, which imposes notification obligations on companies that market products containing PFAS, also comes into effect January 1, 2023.

Does reverse osmosis remove PFAS? ›

Filters containing activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes have been shown to be effective at removing PFAS from water supplies. All water treatment units require regular maintenance to work properly.

When did PFAS become a problem? ›

Awareness of Public Health Impacts

Awareness of the presence of PFAAs can be attributed to occupational studies in the 1970s that found detections of some PFAS in the blood of exposed workers, and further studies in the 1990s that reported detections in the blood of the general human population (Buck et al. 2011).

What are safe alternatives to PFAS? ›

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a compostable plastic typically made from corn—made by a number of manufacturers including Natureworks under the Ingeo® brand and used by Eco-Products , Greensafe Products, GrowPlastics, and World Centric®.

Can anything filter PFAS? ›

Both granular activated carbon (GAC) and reverse osmosis (RO) filters can reduce PFAS substances. Both systems provide less water flow than a standard water faucet.

Do we all have PFAS in our bodies? ›

In the body, they primarily settle into the blood, kidney and liver. A study from 2007 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that PFAS chemicals could be detected in the blood of 98% of the US population.

Which locations in the U.S. are notorious for their elevated environmental PFAS locations? ›

Michigan has the most PFAS contaminated sites in the U.S., according to new data. An update to a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) shows Michigan with by far the most sites (192), but the report says it could be attributed to a more comprehensive testing program.

Are PFAS in 99% of humans? ›

PFAS chemicals have been found in 99% of the humans tested and are known to cause a long list of cancers, birth defects, infertility, thyroid disease and more. This group of chemicals are “forever chemicals” because they never go away, not from the environment and not from our bodies.

Why are PFAS so hard to regulate? ›

The same chemical properties that make PFAS so effective in firefighting foams and other products make them particularly hard to remediate. PFAS chemicals have very limited reactivity. As a result, PFAS is both highly persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative in human and animal tissues.

What makes PFAS so persistent? ›

However, despite their diversity, PFAS do share one common structural feature that makes them highly problematic, namely the presence of perfluoroalkyl moieties, resulting in their shared resistance to environmental and metabolic degradation.

Do PFAS eventually break down? ›

PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are called “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down, and man-made processes that attempt to destroy them are expensive, energy intensive and have yielded questionable results.

What states have the worst PFAS? ›

Michigan has the highest levels of PFAS in the U.S.

Why are PFAS controversial? ›

Because PFAS are long-lasting and bioaccumulative, their widespread use means that all of us have been exposed to PFAS chemicals, have PFAS in our bloodstreams, and encounter PFAS in the environment including, most dangerously, in public drinking water systems.

Does Brita remove PFAS? ›

Common water pitcher brands like Brita and Pur are perfectly fine if you want to reduce bad-tasting chlorine and contaminants like heavy metals. But they weren't designed to remove PFAS or even reduce their concentration in your tap water.

Does boiling water increase PFAS? ›

Boiling water for drinking will not reduce PFAS exposures. Bottled water is not required to be tested for PFAS. Some manufacturers may test for it.

What products have the most PFAS? ›

Where are PFAS found?
  • Cleaning products.
  • Water-resistant fabrics, such as rain jackets, umbrellas and tents.
  • Grease-resistant paper.
  • Nonstick cookware.
  • Personal care products, like shampoo, dental floss, nail polish, and eye makeup.
  • Stain-resistant coatings used on carpets, upholstery, and other fabrics.
Oct 10, 2022

What bacteria breaks down PFAS? ›

Inside E. coli bacteria, researchers have found an enzyme, C-P lyase, that enables the microbe to degrade highly stable chemicals.


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