PFAS -- What’s all the Fuss?

Recently, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been the subject of much publicity, major ongoing litigation over alleged personal injury and property damage, and statutory and regulatory action. In Massachusetts and New Hampshire, contamination incidents, lawsuits, and concerns over drinking water impacts have led to proposals for adoption of extremely low (parts per trillion) drinking water guidelines or enforceable standards. Nationally, although there are drinking water “advisories,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering whether to start rulemaking to identify PFAS as “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund law, and whether to adopt enforceable maximum contaminant levels as national drinking water standards.

What’s all the fuss? Although manufacturers stopped making two of the most well-known PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) over a decade ago, PFAS are a category of substances that includes hundreds of compounds, and a number of them appear to have toxic effects. PFAS had – and continue to have – a variety of uses in a multitude of products, and therefore have been manufactured or used (and sometimes released) at a large number of facilities. Commercial products have included, among others, cookware, food packaging, personal care products, and stain resistant chemicals for apparel and carpets. Industrial and commercial uses included photo imaging, metal plating, semiconductor coatings, firefighting aqueous film-forming foam, car wash solutions, and rubber and plastics. As a result, PFAS are present in the environment, and have been detected in certain drinking water systems. Further, PFAS are still being manufactured and used, but discharge of PFAS in air and water typically have not been regulated. PFAS also are highly mobile and highly persistent in the environment, and, therefore, will be present for scores of years.

Although the toxicological risks for many PFAS have not yet been determined with confidence, PFOA and PFOS have been tested fairly extensively. Manufacturers point out that not all PFAS have the same chemical structures and toxicity. Nevertheless, the Conservation Law Foundation and other environmental advocates are petitioning for regulation of the entire class.

Because PFAS haven’t yet fallen under most federal regulatory schemes, many states have been “filling the gap” with guidance and regulatory action. In Maine, PFAS are already the subject of guidance and regulations by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The most recent DEP Remedial Action Guidelines (RAGs, 2018) for PFOA, PFOS, and PFBS issued by Maine include:

  • Soil RAGs as low as 0.0095 ppm
  • Groundwater residential use RAG as low as 0.40 ppb
  • Fish tissue guidelines for recreational anglers as low as 0.052 ppm

And under DEP Chapter 418, Screening Levels for Beneficial Use have been set for certain PFAS as low as 0.0025 ppm.

It is clear there will be more regulation and legislation at federal and state levels. Further, litigation has commenced in a number of states (including Maine) for perceived or real damages from PFAS contamination under negligence and other tort theories.

What to do? Depending on where you sit, here are a few actions to consider.

  • If you are unsure whether you use PFAS, a limited review of safety data sheets may identify PFAS chemicals.
  • Determine if you stored, used, or currently use PFAS, and consider the potential toxicity of the specific compounds and potential impact of potential regulations.
  • If you stored or used PFAS in the past, consider whether there were potential releases or residuals that could pose health risks or liability risks.
  • If you are considering purchasing a business or real property, consider whether PFAS may have been used or released on site, and the potential risk and liability issues. Note that because PFAS are not federal “hazardous substances” they are not within the scope of the standard Phase I Environmental Site Assessment.
  • If you generate or ship wastes that may contain PFAS, consider voluntary testing and the possibility that testing may soon be requested or required.
  • If you use groundwater as drinking water or for production use, consider whether PFAS may be present from historic or recent uses.
  • Keep posted on national and state regulatory and legislative developments.

Pierce Atwood identified PFAS several years ago as a developing environmental issue, with potentially momentous consequences nationally and regionally. We intend to share news of major PFAS developments with clients as they occur.

If you have questions or concerns about PFAS issues, please contact environmental law attorney Lisa Gilbreath at 207.791.1397.