The Challenge of PFAS

“PFAS—it’s a big word,” a US manufacturing expert told me.  Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – PFAS – is a big word indeed.   

PFAS are a class of chemicals that give materials functional properties, such as the ability to repel oil or water. Organizations use these chemicals in products including textiles, paper, and firefighting foams. Research suggests they negatively impact human health—possibly causing liver/kidney, thyroid, reproductive, developmental, and immunological issues, and cancer.  

Our team researched technology options for removing and destroying PFAS, and the factors driving technology adoption. During this project, an environmental expert commented that he has “never seen a contaminant with so much public/emotional ownership.”  In response to public concern and media attention, many state governments are enacting rules for PFAS cleanup.

PFAS Contamination and Cleanup

The extent of PFAS contamination and potential cleanup costs are sobering.  An environmental expert shared that “if we have to clean all sites to meet current and pending PFAS cleanup standards, there is not enough money in the United States to do that.”  For the Department of Defense sites alone, the U.S. government has estimated that cleanup costs will be in the billions of dollars.

PFAS Measuring and DestrUCTION 

While efforts are underway to clean up PFAS found in drinking-water supplies, there are technology challenges associated with measuring PFAS.  

Thousands of different PFAS chemicals are thought to exist, yet we can only measure a fraction of them.  Measuring is important because it tells us if a potentially harmful chemical is present at levels high enough to create health risks.  It can also show that removal and destruction technologies have lowered PFAS to acceptable levels. 

The ability to measure PFAS has deeper implications.  Measuring the presence and concentration of specific PFAS chemicals is critical for health and risk-assessment studies—to determine how harmful an individual chemical might be to humans and at what levels.  These studies ultimately drive the regulations that determine cleanup levels for PFAS.  If you cannot effectively measure a chemical, it is difficult to determine what levels are acceptable in our environment and drinking water.    

While methods are being developed or refined to separate PFAS from water, destroying what is removed is also a challenge.  Another environmental consultant commented that the “holy grail is destruction technologies” for PFAS.  In response to this technology gap, government agencies like the Department of Defense are funding the exploration and development of new technologies in this space. 

Technology Opportunities Exist  

Amidst current technology and regulatory uncertainty, many companies are taking a “wait and see” approach to tackle PFAS.   At the same timein this environment, there are opportunities for companies to  

  • invest in and/or commercialize solutions or products related to PFAS detection, removal, or destruction, and  
  • identify and implement safer alternative materials to PFAS that can provide the same functional benefits.   

Let us know how we can help your organization identify and validate technology solutions to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants.  




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About the author

With an extensive background in water quality and environmental science, Andy Helminger leads our water practice and positions our water-tech clients to successfully move innovative products to market. Andy has over 20 years of industry and technology space experience, ranging from consumer products to aerospace. He’s passionate about empowering researchers and their organizations to move technologies from the lab to the real world. And it’s this passion that helps our clients convert good ideas into valuable commercial products. Andy’s technical areas of expertise are water quality and environmental science. He leverages this expertise to help clients – including major consumer products companies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and NASA – with innovation challenges related to water treatment and analysis. Prior to joining our group, Andy worked in environmental compliance for the N.C. Division of Water Quality. He received his M.E.M. in Environmental Management from Duke University and a B.A. in Biology from St. Olaf College.

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