As Florida lawmakers continue efforts to keep the state’s environment clean, lawmakers heard of a possible threat that could cause harm to the state’s residents.
The House Water Quality, Supply & Treatment Subcommittee heard a presentation regarding PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Vice Chair Randy Maggard led the meeting by explaining a bit about the compounds.
“While PFAS are no longer manufactured in the United States, they were extensively used and manufactured beginning in the 1940s. Efforts to investigate and understand PFAS and the potential risks to our ecology and human health are still going on.”
PFAS were common in cosmetics, nonstick cookware, waterproof footwear and other items and are being studied as a possible carcinogen. Christopher Teaf, hazard substance and waste management researcher at Florida State University, spoke to lawmakers Thursday and was clear about the dangers of PFAS.
“We’ve never seen a group of substances like the fluorinated compounds. We used to think that arsenic was the worst thing that we’d seen, or we used to think that it was ethylene dibromide or benzene,” Teaf said.
But those are “nothing like” PFAS, Teaf warned.
He explained that the compounds have powerful carbon-to-fluorine bonds, which “drives a lot of the physical, chemical properties, and ultimately, some of the toxicology as well.”
And the sheer number of them makes it hard for researchers to get a read on their effect.
“People say PFAS as though it were a thing,” Teaf told lawmakers. “It’s about 7,000 things, and that’s not an exaggeration.”
Their traits vary, but the compounds are generally soluble in water, dispersive, readily travel through the environment, and bioaccumulative, which means organisms accumulate them faster than they can get rid of them.
The concern is when PFAS gets into water sources, meaning humans can consume them. Teaf said the compounds cause problems with groundwater, surface water and soils, but less so with air.
The compounds are problematic even in wastewater treatment plants.
“Most of what we deal with as domestic customers or as commercial customers goes to the wastewater treatment plants. It then gets treated to the extent you can for the things that we can treat,” Teaf explained.
“PFAS are not well treated by wastewater treatment plants. And so, therefore, they are often discharged from the plants, or they get discharged to the land in the form of the sludges that are removed from wastewater treatment plants.”
While Teaf said research indicates PFAS are carcinogenic for animals, the jury is still out on their effects on humans, though research suggests there may be carcinogenic effects. And the information surrounding PFAS is changing rapidly.
“There’s probably 10 times as much information now as in 2020 or 2021.”
Jessica Kramer of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) also spoke Thursday to update lawmakers on DEP’s efforts to study and clean up PFAS.
Those efforts include partnering with the Department of Health (DOH) when identifying PFAS compounds.
“The main thing we were looking at is ensuring there aren’t drinking water impacts; folks weren’t drinking the water that was testing above 70 parts per trillion,” Kramer said.
DEP would then reach out to DOH, and analysts would scan a half-mile radius around that source to identify private groundwater drinking wells. They would then continue expanding the search area until they were confident PFAS was not present.
If anyone’s water source were affected, the state would help out.
“Our water supply restoration program supplies those citizens that are drinking that water with alternative sources of drinking water, at no cost to the citizen, until a permanent solution can be achieved, such as hooking up to a municipal drinking water system,” Kramer said.
Kramer told lawmakers that site assessments are ongoing, and the agencies are also dealing with PFAS in other ways.
“There are a couple of cases, as I understand it, where we are actually starting to do source removal. So we’ve identified a source of PFAS at a site that we can go in and actually remove and hope to get the bulk of it out to stop environmental impacts,” she explained.
As for what’s on the horizon, officials still have their eyes on the rapidly evolving research to determine the precise effects of PFAS. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also working to finalize a rule regarding the acceptable levels of PFAS in drinking water.
That rule could still be years away. But the state isn’t waiting, Kramer added. DEP is looking at a Jan. 1, 2025, target for that EPA rule.
“If they have finalized it by then, we will adopt the rule statewide. And if not, then we will go through our process to adopt our own rules and our own levels,” Kramer said.