The Cyclical Problems of PFAS Disposal

The Cyclical Problems of PFAS Disposal

There are presently three fundamental ways to dispose of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the hazardous chemicals used to make firefighting foam, and many other consumer products: landfilling, wastewater treatment, and burning. 

Another investigation by researchers at the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) is that none of those techniques are effective. Most commonly, PFAS waste disposal increases contamination. Thus we can say it is a cyclical problem.

In a recently published study in the journal of Chemosphere, burning, disposing, and flushing materials containing the harmful fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS do not adequately contain or destroy them but instead end up returning either similar synthetic compounds or their byproducts once more into the environment. As such, PFAS "disposal" is truly simply one more step in the contamination cycle.

PFAS is used in many products, like food packaging, clothing, carpets, and cookware, for waterproofing or oil sealing properties. They refer to a group of 5,000 different fluorinated chemicals preferred by the industry for their non-stick, non-corrosive properties. They are called "forever chemicals" since they never dissolve in the environment, implying they could travel through the waste cycle uncertainly. PFAS chemicals restrain the immune system and are related to cancer, reproductive, and developmental damages, causing thyroid problems and congenital disabilities.

Many U.S. communities with PFAS contamination are critically searching for treatment alternatives. However, every innovation presently in use produces PFAS-loaded waste. These disposal actions move PFAS to waste management sites and contaminate air, soil, and water all the way.

With current disposal choices, the concentrated PFAS waste possibly returns to the environment, to require costly removal again. This harmful circle clarifies that lessening or dispensing with the production and disposal of PFAS is the best method of handling the troublesome removal of chemicals that do not break down. 

Health Effects of PFAS

Hundreds of various PFAS are used today. Below are the health effects associated with 12 of the chemical family members, namely PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, PFDA, PFDoA, PFHxA, GenX, PFBS, PFBA, PFHpA, and PFUA.

The Cyclical Problems of PFAS Disposal
Harm to the immune system.
Poor immune system response; lower antibody production  in regards to immunization; higher allergic reaction; higher risk of asthma; changes in spleen and thymus
Harm to development and reproduction.
Decreased birth weight; pregnancy-induced hypertension; toxemia; decreased fertility; decreased term of breastfeeding; adjusted mammary gland development; risk to the male reproductive system
Harm to the endocrine system.
Changes in hormone levels, comprising thyroid and reproductive hormones; thyroid disease; hormone receptor activation
Metabolic changes.
Increased cholesterol and lipids; weight gain; diabetes
Changes in the liver.
Increased liver weight; changes in liver enzymes
Higher risk of cancer.
Higher risk of testicular, kidney, or breast cancer; increased tumors in laboratory animals; sign for one or more of the key characteristics of carcinogens


The carbon-fluorine bonds in PFAS are among the most powerful chemical structures on the planet. This makes PFAS extraordinarily hard to demolish. 

Research facility scale studies have demonstrated that, when burned, PFAS can separate from toxic, unstable chemicals, for example, carbon tetrafluoride and hexafluoroethane, just as trifluoroacetic acid and hydrogen fluoride. In any case, there is no friend surveyed studies on PFAS outflows in commercial incineration offices that burn various sorts of waste.

Recently distributed research is not enough to address how PFAS can be destroyed and the contaminants made. An EPA technical brief on PFAS burning, issued in February 2020, stated that "the effectiveness of incineration to destroy PFAS ... is not well understood."

Incomplete destruction of PFAS is hazardous because it can bring about smaller PFAS chemicals and breakdown products. The incinerators would then transfer those undiscovered PFAS and other harmful substances, contaminating air, soil, and water in nearby communities. Some compounds that could be discharged during PFAS incineration are additionally intense ozone-harming gases. 

Study shows that airborne PFAS can travel a few miles from facilities transmitting PFAS, similar to incinerators and mechanical sites. Eventually, airborne PFAS is stored in soil and water close by communities, expanding exposure for individuals in the area. A group of scientists from Bennington University in Vermont discovered high degrees of PFAS in soil and water samples taken from neighborhoods close to the Norlite incinerator in Cohoes, N.Y.

PFAS incineration has been going on, either directly, for PFAS-based materials, such as firefighting foam, or indirectly, through the burning of waste containing PFAS, such as textiles or biosolids and sewage dirt burning. The burning of old loads of PFAS-based firefighting foam– fluid film-forming foam, or AFFF – is a huge source of exceptionally concentrated PFAS waste and can hurt human health and the environment.

The destiny of PFAS under commercial incinerators' present working conditions is to a great extent unclear. This information gap must be addressed, and studies ought to be directed on PFAS burning in different sorts of incinerator facilities, from those taking care of municipal solid waste or biosolids to those handling hazardous waste. Research is fundamental to ideal temperatures and incinerator residence times for complete PFAS destruction in commercially run incinerators.


The use of PFAS-based products and materials creates a huge amount of PFAS-loaded waste, and the removal of this waste can bring about additional contamination. Municipal solid waste incorporates a combination of PFAS-containing consumer products, for example, food packaging materials, food products, stain-and water-resistant upholstery, textiles, garments, and carpets either treated or made with PFAS. PFAS are likewise present in construction and demolition wastes. 

The long-term security of landfill removal for PFAS is uncertain, as PFAS from disposed of products and materials end up in landfill leachate or groundwater close to the landfill. Some more seasoned, inactive landfills may discharge PFAS from materials and wastes disposed of many years prior. There are likewise worries about landfill stability because of the potential for greater rain and heavier storms related to global climate change. PFAS can likewise evaporate into the air. Even though research on PFAS in air landfills has been done in different countries, this study still should be done in the U.S.

In the U.S., landfill leachate is ordinarily gathered and moved to wastewater treatment plants, whereby PFAS and different toxins in the leachate end up in wastewater sewage and treated sewage sludge, also called biosolids. Thus, sewage sludge from wastewater treatment, if not applied on agricultural fields, is either moved to landfills or burned. PFAS contaminants accordingly cycle among landfills and wastewater treatment, causing food and water contamination all the while.

The act of moving landfill leachate to wastewater treatment facilities does not address the contamination issue. Catching, treating, and retaining PFAS at the landfill site prevents the issue from moving further abroad. A similar methodology ought to be used for all other liquid sources of PFAS contamination.

Wastewater and Biosolids

The Cyclical Problems of PFAS Disposal

Wastewater treatment plants get PFAS from numerous sources, including: 

  • Degraded PFAS-based consumer and industrial products that drain into wastewater
  • Industrial facility discharges
  • Landfill leachate moved to wastewater treatment plants
  • PFAS consumed and eliminated by humans

Traditional wastewater treatment measures cannot demolish or eliminate PFAS. After wastewater treatment, PFAS ends up either in wastewater sewage or in sewage sludge. Accordingly, wastewater treatment plants are one of the central focuses in the ecological cycling of PFAS compounds.

PFAS discharged with wastewater sewage into surface water pollutes drinking water for water systems and communities downstream. PFAS contamination likewise adversely influences different uses of wastewater sewage, for example, water systems and groundwater spring recharge. Moving landfill leachate to wastewater plants adds to the general PFAS load in wastewater treatment plants.

Longer-chain PFAS are bound to pack in the sludge, while short-chain PFAS are bound to stay in the sewage. Research in Germany detailed that around one-10th of the heap of PFOA and about half of PFOS showing up with the impact to the wastewater treatment plant winds up in the sludge.

Wastewater treatment plants treated sewage sludge is applied to agricultural fields, shipped off the landfill, or burned. A few states presently require biosolids testing for PFAS before land application to prevent contamination of crops or animals. Heat treatment, ordinarily applied to sewage sludge to disable pathogenic organisms, expands significant PFAS concentrations in biosolids.

Measuring PFAS concentrations in biosolids before field application is vital because PFAS is taken up by crops and can end up in food. In addition to PFAS from biosolids, crops and produce can get polluted by PFAS-contaminated water used for irrigation.

  • Observing PFAS at all wastewater treatment facilities and making that information publicly accessible.
  • Observing PFAS in treated sewage sludge before any agricultural application and making that information freely accessible.
  • Creating human health-based standards for PFAS in biosolids used for application on agricultural fields.
  • Additional research on advanced  PFAS destructions and rehabilitation technologies, especially for PFAS in sewage sludge and wastewater gushing.

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