Scott Minor is superintendent for the water system serving the area around Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, in southern Maine, a growing region where summer tourists flocking to the coast swell the demand for water. Minor’s water system had identified a safe, out-of-the-way spot for a well to supplement the water supply.
“It’s probably one of our most remote wells, there’s really nothing around there,” Minor told Newsweek.
Imagine Minor’s surprise when tests of the well water revealed that it was contaminated by chemicals known as PFAS, toxic substances long used in a range of industrial and consumer goods.
“Where is this coming from?” Minor remembered thinking. “It just blew our minds, it really did.”
Further research showed that decades earlier, a nearby farmer had applied ash and sewage sludge to fields as fertilizer and soil supplements, all of it perfectly legal. The farmer didn’t know those materials were tainted with PFAS.
“That’s what contaminated this poor farmer’s field,” Minor said. PFAS chemicals persist for so long they’re commonly called “forever chemicals,” and over time, the PFAS in the sludge and ash penetrated the soil and percolated into the groundwater in the water system’s new well.
Minor faced a major decision: Abandon the well or find some way to remove the PFAS contaminants.
Thousands of water-system managers around the country will soon have to reckon with similar dilemmas as testing reveals widespread PFAS contamination, studies show more adverse health effects from PFAS exposure, and state and federal regulators impose new standards to protect drinking water. It’s shaping up as a multibillion-dollar job.
What Are PFAS?
Thousands of related fluorinated alkyl chemicals, collectively known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), have been used in nonstick pans, waterproof and stain-resistant clothing, firefighting foam and a host of other industrial and commercial products for more than 60 years.
Unfortunately, PFAS chemicals accumulate in the body, and health studies link exposure to several forms of cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, developmental problems in children and a range of other health threats. Evidence unearthed during lawsuits against some companies that made and used PFAS chemicals, including DuPont, showed that some companies knew about health risks but kept the information secret.
The chemicals are now nearly ubiquitous in the environment, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended PFAS blood tests for people who might have been at risk of high exposure.
A study released last summer by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that about half of all U.S. tap water is tainted with some level of PFAS.
The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed drinking water standards to control the two main PFAS chemicals, but the timeline for finalizing and implementing the regulation is unclear. Twenty-five states have moved ahead with their own PFAS regulations for water, although the acceptable levels vary from state to state, creating an uncertain environment for water-system managers.
PFAS Filtration Solutions
“What makes this so challenging is it could literally be showing up anywhere,” 20-year water industry veteran Snehal Desai told Newsweek. Desai is growth and innovation officer for Xylem, a company that provides water equipment, including filtration systems, to municipal and industrial water systems.
“The good news is that we have solutions,” Desai said. Xylem, one of the companies on Newsweek‘s 2024 Most Responsible Companies ranking, said it has supplied a little more than 80 water systems so far with filtration technology to address PFAS contamination.
Some water-system operators are building new large facilities to house PFAS treatment equipment. Others constrained by space or budget limitations have used a mobile filtration unit Xylem developed to house filters in trailers that can be quickly moved to sources where PFAS are detected.
“Number one is to get [PFAS] out of the line of fire towards the consumer,” Desai said. “Get it out of their drinking water.”
While companies like Xylem help water systems deal with PFAS in the water supply, others are tackling the problem where we consume water—in workplaces, airports, hotels, schools and homes.
Zurn Elkay Water Solutions, another company on Newsweek‘s Most Responsible Companies ranking, offers PFAS filtration for their familiar water fountains and bottle-filling stations.
“It’s a simple, effective, economical way to do it right at the point of use,” Scott Nielsen, Zurn Elkay’s Vice President of Filtration, told Newsweek.
PFAS present a special challenge because the chemicals can pose a risk at levels far smaller than those for many other contaminants, Nielsen said. Lead, for example, is measured in the parts per billion to determine action levels; PFAS must be reduced to just a few parts per trillion in the water.
“So, it’s a very engineered, very dialed-in filter that needs to perform to get to that level,” he said.
Zurn Elkay also offers home filtration, and several water filter products can help reduce PFAS. The research and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group recently tested home filters and has recommendations on products to fit different budgets.
The Cost of Fighting PFAS Chemicals
Nielsen estimated that the schools his company works with can filter out the two main PFAS chemicals each year for about a dollar per student. But for water systems that must remove a variety of contaminants from millions or billions of gallons of water, the PFAS price tag could add up quickly.
“Our members are pretty concerned about it,” American Water Works Association Regulatory Technical Manager Chris Moody told Newsweek. The AWWA is a nonprofit providing research and assistance for thousands of water-system professionals.
The EPA estimated last year that annual costs for PFAS cleanup could be between $772 million and $1.2 billion. But Moody said the EPA didn’t consider the full costs many systems are likely to face when they integrate PFAS filters with those for other contaminants and build out new structures to house filtration equipment. Moody said an independent technical assessment indicates the actual costs are likely to be much higher, about $3.8 billion a year.
Moody said that’s on top of costly controls on lead contamination and upgrades to aging infrastructure that many systems already face.
“This all gets passed on to the household,” he said.
But several streams of revenue could help soften the blow. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act contains $10 billion to help water systems address emerging contaminants such as PFAS, and the Department of Defense has some funding available for communities whose water was contaminated by firefighting foam used on nearby military bases.
Litigation against the companies that produce PFAS, including DuPont and 3M, has already yielded multibillion-dollar settlements, some of which will be directed toward water treatment. Last June, 3M agreed to pay $10.3 billion over 13 years to help public water systems deal with PFAS pollution.
However, Moody said, he’s frustrated that many of the sources of PFAS contamination, such as air emissions and wastewater discharges, are still not regulated, setting water systems up for perpetual PFAS removal.
“We’ve been really focused on the tap, and we haven’t been focused on upstream of the tap,” he said.
Maine’s PFAS Fix
Scott Minor and his workmates at the water system in southern Maine crunched some numbers. They decided it was better to purchase new PFAS filtration than to abandon the much-needed water from a well they had already paid to develop.
The water system worked with the filtration company Evoqua, now a part of Xylem, to install a granular activated carbon system to filter water. That, coupled with an ionic resin system, worked to reduce PFAS to undetectable levels even after large volumes of treatment, allowing the system to comply with Maine’s regulations, meet whatever final standards the EPA sets and give customers peace of mind.
Altogether, Minor said, the system has invested $1.6 million in PFAS treatment, which represents about half of the department’s annual capital budget. He said they were able to leverage assistance from the EPA to pay for some of the initial work to build a system that’s become a showcase for others considering how to manage PFAS in their water.
“We’ve given numerous tours for consultants and state regulators,” Minor said. “We’re very proud of it.”