Read the full article by Will Hatchett (Environment Analyst)

“This month, Environment Analyst listened into Environmental Business International’s roundtable discussion on the science, regulations, drivers and latest treatment technology options concerning perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS). Joined by industry experts the roundtable was chaired by EBI’s editor in chief Grant Ferrier. 

The background

Firstly a little market context. Referring to a recent market survey, Ferrier said the global PFAS remediation market could be worth $80bn over the next five to ten years. PFAS topped the list of all contaminants in terms of demand for work. 

Rosa Gwinn, PFAS lead for AECOM, gave an even more staggering figure for the total cost of global PFAS clean-up. Up to a trillion dollars worldwide.

PFAS chemicals are compounds with long-chain molecules of carbon and fluorine. Persistent and bioaccumulative, they have been linked in studies to carcinogenic, reproductive and immune system health effects. Widely used in stain resistance, non-stick and fire fighting applications PFAS chemicals are in the bodies of humans and the environment everywhere. 

It is estimated that 98% of US citizens have PFAS in their blood, although levels had been falling since the PFOS and PFOA variants were banned under the Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in 2001.

Military bases

Of particular immediate concern are military bases and civil facilities where PFAS-containing AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) firefighting foam was used in large quantities from the 1960s. 

This was not the accidental release associated with other pollutants – large volumes of foam were sprayed onto the ground, in and around the facilities over decades, creating plumes that contaminated surface and groundwater. Humans have also been exposed to PFAS from non-stick, food packaging and water resistance chemicals which have passed through their bodies and entered water supplies (in the UK above EU actionable levels). 

There are believed to be between 4,000 and 7,000 PFAS chemicals, although not all are persistent, bio-accumulative or toxic. ‘Short chain’ variants are still being manufactured and used in products. Threshold levels for the chemicals vary greatly between countries and US states. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health advisory figure is 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for public water supplies. But research findings at such low levels are hard to reproduce. No fixed consensus has been arrived at on what is a ‘safe’ level. This has produced a complex regulatory environment.

The EPA may have rolled back on other areas of regulation, but it has surprised the US remediation industry by its robustness on PFAS. It introduced a PFAS action plan in 2019 and is committed to evaluating PFOS and PFOA risk under the US Safe Drinking Water Act. This year, the EPA added 172 PFAS compounds to its toxic release inventory, so that they must be reported by companies and defence establishments under the National Defense Authorization Act.

The market

Globally, AECOM and Jacobs boast large global remediation teams with experience treating PFAS-affected areas. AECOM has earned $140m dollars from PFAS-related contracts in the last three years. It has worked on 400 sites in the US, Asia-Pacific, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Europe – including the UK and Sweden and currently has 50 clients. 

‘We’re getting an enormous amount of interest from clients we’ve been doing other work for, who now recognise that they have to manage PFAS,’ said Gwinn. 

Jacobs meanwhile has delivered $120m worth of PFAS work for the US Department of Defence (DoD) in the last decade…”