New Contaminants on the Horizon

The United States has spent roughly the last 50+ years successfully targeting the biggest sources of contamination, which generally include the most common, toxic pollutants such as gasoline, heating oil, diesel oil, petroleum hydrocarbons, etc. Today, the attention has broadened to include the smaller pollutants, which are equally as important. This new pollutant category is often referred to as Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CEC). CECs are chemicals that were not considered an environmental pollutant in the past, were not commonly monitored in the environment, and/or had limited available information about human toxicity. However, those factors are changing.

Examples of CECs include pharmaceutical medications, personal care products (fragrances, lotions, etc.), fire retardants, insect repellents, plasticizers, antibiotics, steroids, and caffeine. Generally, CECs have been found in the environment at very low levels and may present a potential risk to human health and the environment. They are often referred to as “emerging” because their discovery as pollutants is fairly new.

More notably, the idea that some of these compounds are present in drinking water has been getting increased public scrutiny, due to new analytical laboratory testing capabilities. In 2002, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) published a study that found various CECs in over 80% of the surfacewater streams that were sampled by USGS. A more recent 2018 study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University found low levels of CECs in 26 rural drinking water wells across 9 counties in North-central Pennsylvania. At least one of the analyzed compounds was found in all of the test wells.

Of the emerging contaminants, one group is getting a lot of attention: PFAs. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) are a group of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries for many years. They are found in a wide range of consumer products that people use on a daily basis such as non-stick cookware and cleaning products. The principal concern is that certain PFAs can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time.

Research dating back to the 198os focused primarily on the impact these chemicals had on fish and other aquatic organisms in streams and rivers. But what are the human health impacts? Many questions are being asked if repeated exposure over time to low levels of CECs and PFAs presents a risk to humans and the environment. Currently, the answers to these questions are not very clear, as a distinct connection to human illness has not yet been established.

Further research is on-gong to examine the compounds’ effects on the environment. Since CECs and PFAs are newer areas of concern in the contamination industry, their regulatory process is in its infancy stage regarding guidance to prescribe treatment requirements or restrictions on their use.

The BAI Group is experienced with the identification and monitoring of CECs at multiple sites. As a result, several of our clients have directed the BAI Group to work with government regulators on establishing appropriate sampling and monitoring programs for their sites regarding select CECs. The BAI Group will remain on the forefront of monitoring the development of CECs and will continue to provide guidance to clients to mitigate the pollutants that are identified on their sites. We welcome the opportunity to assist existing and potential clients in assessing and categorizing this emerging area of concern for your facilities. Contact us today for more information.