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Persistent Pollutants

What we need to know to address PFAS contamination

Regulators, utilities, and communities need more information to handle their PFAS problems, researchers say

by XiaoZhi Lim, special to C&EN
September 16, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 34


A growing number of communities around the world are discovering that they have a problem with exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). To help manage PFAS contamination, researchers affiliated with the Global PFAS Science Panel have called out key knowledge gaps that need to be addressed (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c03386).

The biggest question concerns the quantity of PFAS produced and where they are used. This information is key to understand the extent of pollution and identify undiscovered hot spots, says University of Pittsburgh toxicologist Carla Ng.

Ng and her collaborators in 2019 proposed a way to limit further PFAS pollution by restricting their use to essential applications. Governments around the world have embraced this regulatory approach, but it will be difficult for them to control PFAS this way with only piecemeal knowledge of PFAS uses, Ng says.

The researchers also found that analytical tools for measuring PFAS need to become cheaper and more accessible to help water utilities monitor PFAS in drinking water and regulators limit PFAS emission from factories.

Ng says communities with PFAS pollution need help to make sense of the implications to people’s health and to identify the best way to handle contaminated material. Because of limitations in existing disposal technologies, the researchers suggest that storing contaminated material in safe, confined facilities might be the best short-term solution.

And everyone must talk about who should foot the bills. “Essentially, every company still treats environmental contamination as an externality,” Ng says. “In that sense, I think the system is really broken.”



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