Washington state is moving closer towards adopting standards for the group of compounds known as forever chemicals — per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) and the Department of Health (SDOH) have issued a Draft Chemical Action Plan for public comment on recommendations to address PFAS. At the same time, SDOH is proposing State Action Levels for five PFAS compounds in drinking water. The Chemical Action Plan and drinking water standards address just a small subset of the more than 4,700 PFAS that persist in the environment and have been detected in surface water, groundwater, wastewater treatment plant effluent, freshwater and marine sediments, fish tissue, and osprey eggs.

Because PFAS are grease-, stain- and water-resistant, they are widely used in cookware, carpets, food packaging, clothing, chemicals and other consumer products, as well as in some types of firefighting foam and other industrial applications. Human exposure to PFAS comes from ingestion through food, drinking water, or contact with disposable packaging or treated textile products. PFAS are linked with increased cholesterol levels, immune suppression and lower birthweights, and higher exposures are associated with some types of cancer. In Washington, PFAS have been found in groundwater supplies for drinking water in Tacoma, Issaquah, Lakewood, DuPont, Parkland, Naval Air Station Whidbey, Fairchild Air Force Base, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. To remedy those detections, several of the water systems have been taken offline, filters installed and long-term monitoring implemented.

Chemical Action Plan

The draft Chemical Action Plan is the latest in a series of interim and preliminary recommendations in a process that began in 2016. Among the recommendations in the draft plan is the establishment of PFAS cleanup levels for soil and groundwater. Washington does not have specific cleanup levels for any PFAS, but other states have set varying levels. For example, Massachusetts last year adopted a 20 parts per trillion (ppt) groundwater standard for six specific PFAS and soil cleanup standards ranging from 200 ppt to 720 ppt depending on the compound. Michigan set a groundwater cleanup standard of 8 ppt for one compound (PFOA) and 16 ppt for another (PFOS). The Chemical Action Plan proposes that Ecology undertake a process to set cleanup standards, but did not recommend a timeline.

The draft Chemical Action Plan also recommends funding for PFAS drinking water mitigation, technical support for site characterization, source investigation and mitigation at contaminated sites. Another recommendation is to conduct studies to reduce PFAS exposure from carpets and rugs, water- and stain-resistant treatments, and leather and textile furnishings, including identification of feasible and available alternatives. The draft plan also recommends studying PFAS in landfill emissions, wastewater treatment influent and effluent, and biosolids.

Ecology and SDOH are accepting comments on the draft plan through December 7 and have targeted summer 2021 for issuing the final Chemical Action Plan.

Drinking Water Standards

Meanwhile, PFAS in drinking water remains a focus around the country. There is no federal rule for allowable PFAS in drinking water; only a health advisory that set 70 ppt for two compounds — PFOA and PFOS. Consequently, the states have been adopting their own standards that are considerably more stringent. California, which recently found that 60 percent of its public water supply wells contain concentrations of PFAS well above EPA's 70 ppt, adopted a 10 ppt standard for PFOA and 40 ppt for PFOS. New York set a 10 ppt standard for both PFOA and PFOS; Minnesota has a 15 ppt guidance value; and Vermont adopted 20 ppt total for five PFAS compounds. By contrast, SDOH's proposed State Action Levels set differing standards for each of five PFAS, ranging from 10 ppt (PFOA), 15 ppt (PFOS), and 14 ppt (PFNA) to 70 ppt (PFHxS) and 860 ppt (PFBS).

Under the proposed Washington regulations, water systems will have until December 31, 2025 to collect an initial sample. If the first detection is less than 20 percent of the SAL, then an additional sample must be collected the next quarter. If the first detection is between 20 percent and 80 percent of the SALs, then samples are required for two additional quarters. And, if any of the samples exceed 80 percent of the SALs, then samples are required for three additional quarters.

The rules also require water systems to provide notice to their users if there is a PFAS detection and inform users of the health effects of PFAS, what the water system is doing to address the issue, and how consumers can protect themselves.

SDOH will be scheduling a formal public comment period, with a public hearing, sometime in spring 2021, with a goal of adopting the final rules in July 2021.

Originally published October 8, 2020

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.