With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposing new limits for "Forever Chemicals" or PFAS in drinking water, water utilities and municipalities are grappling with the challenge of addressing these chemical contaminants.
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Confronting PFAS: Charting a sustainable path to safe drinking water in developing countries

Explore the challenges faced by developing nations in dealing with PFAS contamination, a class of persistent chemicals affecting drinking water safety. How can these countries navigate these complex issues to ensure clean water for all?

With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposing new limits for “Forever Chemicals” or PFAS in drinking water, water utilities and municipalities are grappling with the challenge of addressing these chemical contaminants (Figure 1). PFAS, short for “per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances,” are man-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s, making products (e.g. cooking nonstick pans) resistant to oil, heat, stain, or water (Figure 2). However, due to their strong carbon-fluorine bond, they are notoriously persistent in the environment and can easily find their way into water supplies. PFAS contamination poses significant challenges to developing countries like India, where awareness, regulatory frameworks, and resources are limited.

Figure 1. Typical structure of PFAS compounds
Credit. American Water Works Association

Understanding the EPA’s proposed regulations

The EPA’s recent proposal represents the agency’s first enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water. It lowers the lifetime health advisory levels (the level above which people will develop adverse health effects resulting from exposure throughout their lives) to as low as 0.004 parts per trillion (ppt) and 0.02 ppt for the likely carcinogens PFOA and PFOS, respectively (Table 1).

Figure 2. Commonly used products that contain PFAS

Challenges and lack of policies on PFAS in developing countries

While developed countries like the United States have made significant strides in addressing PFAS contamination and proposing regulations, developing countries face unique challenges in dealing with these harmful substances. India, as a rapidly growing economy with a vast population and extensive industrial activities, is no exception. The lack of comprehensive policies and regulations on PFAS in India poses significant obstacles in combating their presence in drinking water and the environment, summarised here:

  1. Limited awareness and monitoring:  One of the primary challenges in addressing PFAS contamination in India is the limited awareness and understanding of these substances. Many communities and even government agencies may not be fully aware of the potential risks associated with PFAS exposure. Consequently, there is a lack of emphasis on monitoring PFAS levels in drinking water sources and surface waters. Without proper monitoring, it becomes challenging to identify and assess the extent of PFAS contamination, hindering the development of targeted mitigation strategies.
  2. Data and research gap: The scientific research and data on PFAS contamination in India are relatively sparse compared to developed nations. Limited research hampers efforts to understand the prevalence, sources, and pathways of emerging contaminants like PFAS in the environment. Gathering accurate data on PFAS levels and their impact on human health is crucial to make informed policy decisions and develop effective solutions.
  3. Insufficient regulatory framework: India lacks specific regulations or standards regarding PFAS in drinking water or the environment. The absence of enforceable guidelines can lead to inconsistent practices in managing PFAS contamination. The lack of a clear regulatory framework may result in different regions adopting varying approaches to handle PFAS, potentially leading to disparities in public health protection.
  4. Complex sources of PFAS contamination: The sources of PFAS contamination in developing countries like India can be complex and multifaceted. Industrial discharges, improper waste disposal, and the use of PFAS-containing products can all contribute to the presence of these chemicals in water supplies. Identifying and controlling these diverse sources of contamination requires coordinated efforts from various sectors and industries.
  5. Limited resources and infrastructure: The resource constraints in developing countries pose significant challenges in dealing with PFAS contamination. Allocating funding for advanced monitoring equipment, research studies, and implementing treatment technologies can be a struggle. Additionally, water treatment infrastructure in many regions may not be equipped to handle PFAS removal, further complicating mitigation efforts.
  6. Transboundary pollution: PFAS contamination is not confined by national borders, and pollutants can easily travel across international boundaries through waterways and atmospheric deposition. India’s proximity to neighbouring countries and the potential for transboundary pollution necessitate regional cooperation and collaborative strategies to address PFAS contamination effectively.
PFAS CompoundsProposed MCLGProposed MCL (enforceable levels)
PFOAZERO4.0 ppt
PFOSZERO4.0 ppt
PFNA1.0 (unitless)
Hazard Index
1.0 (unitless)
Hazard Index
PFHxS1.0 (unitless)
Hazard Index
1.0 (unitless)
Hazard Index
PFBS1.0 (unitless)
Hazard Index
1.0 (unitless)
Hazard Index
HFPO-DA (commonly referred to as GenX Chemicals)1.0 (unitless)
Hazard Index
1.0 (unitless)
Hazard Index
Table 1.  National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) proposed by EPA; Credit. EPA
Note. MCLs stand for Maximum Contaminant Levels; MCLGs stand for Maximum Contaminant Level Goals

Nine ground rules to address the challenges

To address the challenges of PFAS contamination in developing countries like India, a multifaceted approach is required:

  1. Robust monitoring and research: Governments and research institutions must invest in extensive monitoring programs and research studies to comprehensively understand PFAS contamination in various regions.
  2. Awareness and education: Public awareness and engagement are critical to addressing PFAS contamination. Consumers are increasingly informed about the presence of PFAS in drinking water, and the proposed EPA regulations are likely to heighten their concern. Similarly, raising awareness about PFAS among communities, industries, and policymakers is crucial in India. Public education campaigns can help understand the risks associated with PFAS exposure and foster cooperation in finding solutions.
  3. Policy development: Formulating and implementing specific regulations and standards for PFAS in drinking water and the environment is essential. Drawing upon the experiences of developed nations can provide valuable insights for crafting effective policies. 
  4. International cooperation: Addressing transboundary PFAS pollution requires regional cooperation among neighbouring countries. Many countries worldwide are grappling with similar issues. Therefore, collaborative efforts can help collectively share information, resources, and best practices to combat contamination.
  5. Research and innovation: Encouraging research and innovation in PFAS remediation technologies can lead to cost-effective and sustainable solutions tailored to the specific needs of developing countries. Moreover, collaboration among different stakeholders, including government agencies, environmental groups, and industry experts, can significantly enhance the effectiveness of PFAS mitigation efforts. Sharing knowledge, resources, and expertise can lead to innovative solutions and streamlined implementation of treatment technologies.
  6. The role of pilot studies in optimising treatment strategies: Collaborating with consultants on a pilot study is also beneficial in selecting the best treatment technique, minimising costs, and optimising treatment efficacy. Through a pilot study, utilities can learn about the effectiveness of different water treatment technologies, capital investments, operational costs, and overall life-cycle expenses. The uniqueness of each water system demands a tailored approach to tackle PFAS contamination, making the pilot study a valuable tool in the process.
  7. Capacity building and infrastructure development: Strengthening the capacity of water treatment facilities to handle PFAS removal and investing in advanced treatment technologies will be critical for successful mitigation efforts. Funding extensive water infrastructure projects can be challenging, but there are various avenues utilities can explore. For example, in the USA, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) has allocated federal grants as a significant funding source, covering up to 40% of capital infrastructure spending. Specific federal funding programs designed to combat PFAS in drinking water have been established and distributed through state programs. Notable options include the EPA Emerging Contaminants in Small or Disadvantaged Communities Grant, EPA Clean Water State Revolving Fund Emerging Contaminants, and EPA Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Understanding eligibility criteria and program guidelines is crucial for successful grant applications, and similar funding opportunities should be developed in India.
  8. Emphasising sustainability and environmental responsibility: Alongside technological advancements, the water industry’s focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility is essential. Implementing PFAS treatment facilities or upgrades should consider using energy-efficient systems and environmentally friendly materials. Furthermore, utilities should strive to minimise waste generation and explore options for PFAS waste disposal that minimise environmental impact.
  9. Workforce training and education: While developing a long-term strategy to combat PFAS contamination, utilities should not overlook the significance of workforce training and education. Equipping water treatment personnel with specialised knowledge and skills for handling PFAS-related challenges is crucial for successfully implementing and operating treatment facilities. Continued education and professional development can empower water industry professionals to stay up-to-date with the latest PFAS removal and treatment technology advancements.

Conclusions

PFAS contamination poses a significant global challenge for utilities and municipalities. The EPA’s proposed regulations highlight the urgency for water utilities to develop action plans, conduct pilot studies, and explore funding options. Effective strategies to combat PFAS contamination require research, collaboration, and policy development. International cooperation and knowledge sharing are vital in addressing this global issue and ensuring safe drinking water for communities worldwide, especially in developing countries like India. By engaging in public outreach, collaborating with stakeholders, investing in research and sustainable practices, and providing specialised training for water treatment professionals, utilities can achieve a sustainable and practical approach to clean and safe drinking water for all.

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Journal reference

Domingo, J. L., & Nadal, M. (2019). Human exposure to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) through drinking water: A review of the recent scientific literature. Environmental research177, 108648. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0013935119304451

Dr Sanjeeb Mohapatra (Marie Curie Fellow at TU Delft) is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the National University of Singapore. He received his PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay). He is a recipient of the Marie Curie Fellowship form the EU, Newton Bhabha PhD Placement Fellowship from the British Council, Water Advanced Innovation Fellowship from Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) and INSPIRE fellowship from the Department of Science and Technology India. His research involves identifying and quantifying emerging contaminants (ECs) and evaluating their fate during wastewater treatment, using cutting-edge high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) technology.