August 29, 2019

Concerns Are Growing Around PFAS In Groundwater

 |  By: Mike Opperman

There is growing concern within the dairy industry about a class of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and concern is leading to future regulations that could impact dairy producers.

The issues with PFAS are significant.

First, the presence of PFAS humans can have an effect on health. This can include an effect on the growth and learning of children, the ability of a woman to get pregnant, possibly an impact on cholesterol levels and immunity, and there have been some links to cancer. 

“The risk of PFAS still isn’t understood. We’re still in the early stages of understanding potential implications,” says Matthew Schroeder, senior environmental engineer with Dragun Corporation. “PFAS may have some health effects at really low levels, like parts per trillion levels.”

That leads to the second issue with PFAS, that it has an impact at really, really small levels. To put it in perspective, a part per trillion is equal to a grain of sand in a full Olympic-sized swimming pool. 

The fact that it’s present at such low levels is one of the reasons why concern over PFAS hasn’t risen to prominence until recently. Until a few years ago technology wasn’t available to test at the part per trillion level. Now it is.

“We can test PFAS at the parts per trillion level, so we’re finding PFAS in more places,” Schroeder says. “We are realizing that it may be a more widespread issue than we originally thought.”

One might think that since PFAS is present at low levels that the body should be able to just get rid of it through normal biological processes. Unfortunately that’s easier said than done, which leads to the third issue. 

PFAS doesn’t go away. It accumulates in the body—human, cow or otherwise—over time. And that’s where dairy comes in. 

The primary mode of transportation for PFAS seems to be water. If groundwater becomes contaminated with PFAS, then it can be taken in by the cow through two different pathways: through crops that take it up through the soil which ends up in feed, or they can drink contaminated water. 

Either way, once PFAS is in the cow it’s nearly impossible to get rid of. 

“Cows have a slow elimination rate for PFAS,” says Leah Ziemba, industry group co-chair, agribusiness, food and beverage with the Michael Best law firm. “It would require a considerable amount of time to eliminate PFAS.”

So what can producers do about it?

You can test to see if any of the wells on your property are contaminated, but there are very few labs with the ability to properly test for PFAS due to the sensitivity of the test. Also, tests are only currently set for drinking water so a certain amount of extrapolation has to occur for tests conducted on any other substance. 

“Water filtration systems are the most common way to deal with PFAS, either activated carbon filters or ion exchange filters,” Schroeder says. Cost is dependent on how much water is being treated and what level of PFAS is in the water. “It’s how often you replace the carbon or other absorptive media that goes in the cost. If it’s monthly, that’s a high cost. But if there are low levels and you aren’t using that much water, the cost may be less.”

To find out about public awareness and pending regulations, click here