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The EPA proposes the first-ever US limits on toxic PFAS and startups’ solutions will be in-demand

a drop of water ripples into a small container of water, taking up the entire image
Photo credit: Unsplash / David Becker

For years environmental and public health researchers have advocated for limits on PFAS, a classification of more than 9,000 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are in almost any product you can think of from clothes, cookware, and electronics to medical devices, firefighting foams, and cosmetics.

U.S. federal studies even show PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” are present in the body of every American they’ve ever tested.

After decades of activism, on March 14, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first-ever national drinking water standard for major six PFAS commonly found in drinking water. The EPA says these are dangerous in even small, “undetectable” amounts.

PFAS are not only incredibly toxic, with links to a slew of diseases and conditions including liver damage, high cholesterol, and multiple types of cancer, but many do not break down in the environment, and end up floating in air, soil, and water.

A recent estimate by the Environmental Working Group, a public health advocacy organization, found that up to 110 million Americans could be drinking PFAS-contaminated water.

“Today, prayers were answered,” Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan said in a statement. Clean Cape Fear fights against PFAS contamination in North Carolina, aiming to hold polluters like the chemical company Chemours/DuPont accountable.

"No one should ever wonder if the PFAS in their tap water will one day make them sick,” she added. “We all deserve access to health-protective drinking water. It’s a basic human right. We applaud the Biden EPA for having the courage to do what multiple administrations could not.”

Extensive research over decades shows the extent of PFAS dangers. DuPontd e Nemours, Inc., the multinational chemical company that Clean Cape Fear is fighting to hold accountable, knew that PFAS could cause liver damage as far back as 1961 and was sued and 2005 for dumping millions of chemicals into the air and Ohio River.

The class action lawsuit took 12 years and finally, they settled for $670 million, after an eight-year study of tens of thousands of people who had been exposed. Still today, Clean Cape Fear says that Chemours, a 2015 spin-off from DuPont, has poisoned North Carolians with 40 years worth of contaminated drinking water.

With the EPA’s new proposal, testing strategies are enhanced, industrial and environmental regulatory programs are introduced, and $10 billion in funding could be distributed to address emerging contaminants under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

According to the agency, “If finalized, the proposed regulation will require public water systems to monitor for these chemicals – and notify the public and reduce the levels of these PFAS if levels exceed proposed standards.”

Every dollar of that $10 billion will be needed because PFAS removal is not cheap. As the Associated Press reports, nationally, it could cost roughly $38 billion to remove enough of the chemicals to meet a strict EPA rule limiting them to where they can’t be detected.

Why $38 billion? Because the systems add up.

One industrial large-scale system for a removal process called reverse osmosis, for example, can cost as much as $2 million to $4 million, and that price tag doesn’t even begin to factor in the price tag of water waste, which ups the environmental cost. Other processes can range from the million dollar mark to even $7 million, the price of a process called ion exchange that picks up where other systems like the least costly option, granular activated charcoal (GAC) treatment, leave off.

These systems are generally pricey because wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to remove them. Because of this, cities have to invest in brand-new infrastructure and each method of PFAS removal — reverse osmosis, ion exchange, GAC, and blending with less contaminated water from other sources — involves high upfront capital costs.

Brunswick County, North Carolina paid $99 million on a reverse osmosis plant following the extensive contamination of the Cape Fear River watershed. And the price doesn’t end there. The county will pay $2.9 million annually in operations expenses.

According to a 2021 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, this expensive infrastructure doesn’t even fully eliminate PFAS.

That’s where startups come in.

One company, Aquagga, Inc., based in Tacoma, Washington, recently received up to $500,000 in funding from the EPA to, in their words, end PFAS. The money will be used to

commercialize its hydrothermal alkaline treatment process for destroying PFAS in contaminated groundwater.

Aptly known as the HALT process, the system harnesses the unique properties of hot, compressed water, the systems break the strong carbon-fluorine bonds that hold PFAS together, the startup says.

Unlike other methods, including incineration, Aquagga says the method has “no disadvantages” because it is low energy, has no toxic byproducts or emissions, and treats high-salinity wastewater.

Aquagga’s tech has even been validated by two world-leading research institutions and is backed by six federal agencies including the University of Washington, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Idaho National Laboratory, the Colorado School of Mines, and the EPA.

The second-most important fact, only behind the system’s efficacy, is the fact that it doesn’t cost millions of dollars.

“We believe that our clients should not be forced to spend millions on capital equipment to meet their remediation and wastewater treatment goals. We recognize the importance of offering flexible pricing and purchasing options for our customers,” Brian Pinkard, the company’s chief technology officer said in a statement on their website.

In their case studies, the company says >99.99% of PFAS was destroyed, besting other million-dollar-methods.

While Aquagga is setting its sights on industrial and military facilities, solid waste, and drinking water facilities, another startup, Cyclopure Inc. is focusing on home filtration.

Last year, the Skokie, Illinois-based startup launched what they say is the first-ever filter that brings PFAS protection to the countertop. Instead of costing millions of dollars, the Britta-compatible cartridge is only $45.

Now, however, the startup is taking its tech from the kitchen sink to the Coosa River Basin in Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama where it will be involved in a comprehensive multi-year study to determine the extent of PFAS contamination in the waterways.

Both Cyclopure’s personal and municipal-grade tech uses a corn-based solution called DEXSORB the company says uses tiny sub-nanometer cups that target and scoop PFAS out of water. It then creates an adsorbent barrier that blocks further passage of the toxin.

Cyclopure has some lofty goals for its tech, stating that “66% of households do not use tap for drinking. We’re helping to change that.”

With DEXSORB, they say that water is not only 100% PFAS-free but also 100% reusable, which they hope will help meet the increasing demand for clean, fresh water when only 1% of the world’s water is fresh and is already re-used constantly.

If the EPA’s proposal is finalized, solutions like these will be needed so municipalities can cost-effectively adhere to new regulations. The $10 billion in allocated funding is huge, but when projections estimate the country will need multitudes more to combat the PFAS problem, startups’ innovation may help local governments sustainability meet the needs of their communities.

As New Hampshire, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the lead negotiator of the water provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, said via the EPA’s press release, “These dollars will be crucial in providing our municipalities with the resources they will need to comply with these new regulations so that together we can prioritize clean water for our communities.”

“As this process moves forward and with the anticipation of the rule being finalized, I urge the Biden administration to move swiftly and ensure timely allocation of funds from the infrastructure bill to assist public water operators as they begin work to meet these new enforceable drinking water levels.”

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