Expert: Large scale PFAS removal will take ingenuity, deep pockets

A person pours water in a tube
A water researcher, pours a water sample into a smaller glass container for experimentation as part of drinking water and PFAS research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Center For Environmental Solutions and Emergency Response.
Joshua A. Bickel | AP

The Minnesota Department of Health says 22 communities have levels of so-called “forever chemicals” higher than new federal limits. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency has set enforceable drinking water standards for six PFAS for the first time.

Water systems will be required to monitor for the chemicals and remove them if they're above the allowable levels.

University of Minnesota Environmental Health Sciences Professor Matt Simcik, Ph.D. and All Things Considered host Tom Crann discussed the new federal limits.

Simcik expressed hope for a viable solution to remove these 'forever chemicals' economically, while also highlighting the challenges of removing PFAS from water, including the cost and waste associated with membrane technology.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and accuracy.

The EPA has given five years for places to reduce the levels to these new limits. Is that realistic?

I hope so. I think what this limit does now that it’s enforceable, is going to have a lot of scientists, engineers and water quality specialists figuring out how to reduce these economically so that we can do that.

Can you briefly describe for us the process to remove these chemicals from water? What has to happen?

Yeah, so there are several methods that right now that are viable. One is a membrane technology, so what we call reverse osmosis. This is a technique that’s even used to desalinate water, it works very, very effectively. Unfortunately, on a large scale, it’s very expensive. There’s also a lot of waste associated with it.

According to our reporting, the State’s Pollution Control Agency estimates it will cost between $14 and $28 billion over 20 years to remove the PFAS in these 22 water systems. And when it comes to that issue of paying, who ultimately will be paying to get rid of them?

Yeah, it will most likely be passed on to the consumer, because the water supply company, they’re required to remove these chemicals, but they didn’t produce them. They don’t have the resources to do this. They sell their water based on the cost to produce it and the number of customers that they have.

What will the accountability process be like? How will they be held accountable?

The water supplies are required by federal law to meet these standards. If they are not, the state or federal government can step in and require them to do so, shut their water system down, provide water for people that is clean.

This is a generally a very good failsafe system that we have, obviously there are situations where this breaks down like Flint, Michigan, or Jackson, Mississippi, in recent years where we’ve had issues where water supplies have not produced the water that is meeting health standards.

And therefore you have the state or federal government that has to step in and fund an option to rectify the situation.

What other concerns do you have about this accountability process being rolled out into the future? It’s still fairly recent, right?

Correct. Well, the standard was proposed about a year ago. And so there’s been a comment period, and it just became official last week. So both the scientists, the engineers, and the water supplies have had time to sort of think about this and start working on it.

And there’s been a lot of research in the last decade looking at how to remove these things. And we do have techniques that will work. What always tends to happen in the United States, we’re met with a challenge.

Someone figures out a cheap, easy solution and they make a lot of money off of it. That’s sort of how our system works. And so I’m hopeful that someone will come up with a really nice solution to this problem.