What are PFAS?

PFAS, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, make up just a small part of the many thousands of man-made chemicals first created in the 1930s and 1940s to make fluoropolymer coatings and products. PFAS are designed to repel water and oil, have high and low temperature stability and are used to reduce friction.

Why are PFAS dangerous?

PFAS are dangerous because:

  1. PFAS are referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because of their longevity in the environment
  2. They are associated with serious health risks
  3. PFAS migrate easily and are difficult to contain

PFAS are ‘forever chemicals’

The unique chemical compositions of PFAS, their carbon-fluorine bonds, which are some of the strongest ever created by man, do not naturally breakdown. Because of this, they are referred to as ‘forever chemicals,’ as it is estimated that in nature, certain PFAS chemicals can take up to 1,000 years to break down.

PFAS are associated with serious health risks

The growing body of scientific health studies reveals that associations between human PFAS exposures and specific adverse human health outcomes is even more problematic. According to a 2018 Hearing on ‘The Federal Role in the Toxic PFAS Chemical Crisis’ health effects associated with human exposures to PFAS contributes to children’s cognitive and neurobehavioral development, immune system dysfunction, endocrine disruption, obesity, diabetes and lipid metabolism and cancer.

PFAS migrate easily

Human exposure to PFAS has been linked to various sources, including our drinking water supply. PFAS are also present in our food supply due to their leaching from food packaging, agricultural irrigation of food crops with PFAS impacted water, and the bioaccumulation of PFAS in produce, livestock and fish.

Furthermore, PFAS exposure isn’t limited to drinking the groundwater (ingestion); as PFAS can also be found in air emissions. Workers involved in making or processing PFAS and PFAS-containing materials may be exposed via inhalation or skin absorption.

What products are PFAS found in?

PFAS were engineered to repel water and oil, have high and low temperature stability and reduce friction. These desirable chemical properties have led to PFAS incorporation in a wide range of consumer and industrial products.

From food packaging to personal care products to cookware to textiles, from medical to automotive to aerospace applications, firefighting foams and many more, PFAS chemicals have become ubiquitous in our daily lives.

Common Items with PFAS

  • Food packaging – microwave popcorn bags, sandwich wrappers, takeout containers and fast-food wrappers
  • Personal care products – cosmetics, nail polish, dental floss and shampoo
  • Household products – non-stick cookware, stain resistant products such as carpets, rugs and furniture
  • Outdoor gear –anything with a “durable water repellent” coating such as coats, jackets and tents
  • Industrial uses – aviation hydraulic fluids, floor polishes, paints, firefighting foams, mining and oil well surfactants, mist suppressant in metal plating, photographic processes
  • Agricultural uses – pesticides and herbicides

What caused PFAS contamination on my property?

PFAS contamination sources

Certain industries and operations carry a much higher risk of PFAS chemical contamination than others. Examples of high-risk source properties associated with PFAS contamination include any property where aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) fire suppressants are used, such as military facilities with munitions and explosives, fire stations, public- and private-sector airports, refineries and petrochemical industries to name a few. If a fire occurred on-site and AFFF was applied, PFAS contamination is likely.

Wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), landfill operations and commercial and industrial properties with electroplating operations, open burning practices and manufacturing of PFAS have also been found to be source properties. Agricultural land that applies biosolids or WWTP sludge may also be considered a high-risk property.

Additional property types where commercial and industrial uses of PFAS include the production of electronics, plastics, rubber, coatings, paints and varnishes. Aircraft and heavy equipment manufacturing, car washes, laundry and dry cleaners are considered high to moderate risk properties.

PFAS contamination source resources

While the above provides examples of PFAS source properties, we encourage an in-depth review of all sources to reduce your liability. Past and present property uses that may have potentially included the handling and discharge of PFAS wastes are revealed via historical sources, agency records and their North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code identification.

Click on the image to download AEI’s PFAS Potential Contamination Sources Checklist.

Why are PFAS difficult to contain?

Although your property may not be a PFAS source property, you still need to consider the possibility of PFAS contamination on your property generated from an off-site source via surface water, groundwater, soil movement or particles dispersing in the air. Given the “right ride,” PFAS chemicals can travel far and wide.

PFAS chemicals and PFAS-containing products can move easily through the ground via soil leaching and make their way into groundwater that may supply drinking water to homes and communities. In the figure shown below, PFAS can be released during their use or application from homes and industries and then enter surface water directly or through a WWTP.

Because select PFAS can also become airborne, they can mix with rain or snow and end up in rivers and lakes; ultimately finding their way to your property.

Even if your property is not a source of PFAS, it may have been affected by PFAS contamination at levels that warrant further investigation, and if present remediation or mitigation can cause property devaluation.

 Image Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (permission use granted)

Does the ASTM E1527-21 require PFAS?

The ASTM E1527-21, the latest standard for a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment considers PFAS as ‘emerging contaminates’ that are technically out of scope. Therefore, a discussion of PFAS is not required.

However, PFAS can still be discussed in the report as a “non-scope” item. For instance, asbestos-containing material and lead-based paint are typically “non-scope” items that are regularly discussed in Phase I Environmental Site Assessment reports.

Click on the image above to download AEI’s resource that illustrates how changes to the new ASTM E1527-21 standard may impact you.

Is PFAS a recognized environmental condition (REC)?

As of 2022, PFAS are not currently a recognized environmental condition (REC) per the ASTM E1527-21 definition of a REC. This is due to the fact that PFAS are not currently considered a “hazardous substance” by the EPA.

When are PFAS going to become a hazardous substance by the EPA?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) PFAS Strategic Roadmap, select PFAS chemicals are scheduled to be classified as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in the summer of 2023. Once this happens, PFAS impact on a property will be considered as part of the ASTM E1527-21 scope.

Are you required to discuss PFAS in a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA)?

Because PFAS are considered as ‘emerging contaminants’ as a ‘non-scope’ item, the ASTM E1527-21, you are not required to discuss PFAS in a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA).

Should I include PFAS in a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA)?

While a discussion about PFAS isn’t mandatory in your due diligence process, a recent sign of tightening regulations includes the EPA’s addition of five PFAS chemicals to the list of Regional Screening and Removal Management Levels to protect Human Health and the Environment, with more chemicals likely to be added in the future.

Therefore, what isn’t considered a REC by today’s (2022) standards, soon will be. Taking a proactive approach to assess potential impacts at the time of your current transaction is highly recommended to avoid negative surprises and potential setbacks at future property transaction junctures.

Given that regulations are fast approaching, it is in your best interest to assess and address the potential of PFAS contamination early in a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA). By taking proactive measures, you facilitate the due diligence ease for the future refinance or sale of your property.

How do I know if my property is contaminated with PFAS?

There are three steps to take to help determine if your property is contaminated with PFAS:

  1. Familiarize yourself with on- and off-site contamination sources and pathways. Download AEI’s Potential PFAS Contamination Sources Checklist.
  2. Include a discussion of potential PFAS contamination in your Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) report.
  3. Speak with an environmental professional. Contact AEI to help you get started.

What happens if PFAS is found on a property?

Purchasing a property with known (or suspected) PFAS contamination may carry extreme legal and financial risks.

Legal risks associated with PFAS contamination

An example of the legal risks associated with PFAS contamination includes the carpet manufacturing industry. The application of stain-resistant coatings has made carpet manufacturing one of the many high-risk industrial operations that have been linked to PFAS contamination. Numerous lawsuits have been filed in an area of Georgia known as the “carpet capital of the world” against various carpet manufacturers who have allegedly contaminated drinking water. In the fall of 2021, a Georgia federal judge allowed many of the claims to proceed against carpet manufacturers. This ruling opens the door to a potential tsunami of future lawsuits against past and present facilities that are identifiable point sources of significant PFAS contamination.

Financial risks associated with PFAS contamination

A property’s value may be significantly impacted if PFAS contamination or perceived potential PFAS contamination is present. Several farms have been financially ruined when they found elevated concentrations of PFAS in their soil and groundwater. PFAS entered the soil and found their way into farm crops and dairy products produced on-site. Without the ability to grow crops, the value of contaminated farmland is significantly reduced.

Legal and financial risks underline the need for conducting detailed due diligence research. Identifying past and present operations that may have resulted in significant PFAS contamination is becoming increasingly critical. Since a discussion of PFAS is currently considered an optional non-scope item by ASTM in the E1527-21 standard, many environmental consultants have opted to omit any discussion of potential PFAS contamination. AEI recommends that you talk to your consultant and ensure that they are properly addressing potential PFAS contamination risks in your Phase I ESA reports. If potential PFAS contamination is identified, additional actions may be warranted.

That being said, it’s important to remember that if PFAS contamination is found at your site, it’s more likely that your property has been contaminated by an off-site source of contamination and not an on-site source. PFAS contamination plumes have been identified to extend for several miles.

Getting out ahead of potential PFAS contamination may help mitigate future costs.

Your legal and financial risks are greatly reduced if your environmental consultant has completed the appropriate research and your site is not a potentially responsible source of PFAS contamination. Subsurface Investigations may be more appropriate for potential on-site sources of contamination, while impacts originating from off-site sources may not always require additional actions.

In the past we have seen that companies who lag behind the coming trends and avoid investing in measures to address potential contamination proactively tend to pay double later on. What might seem like a cost-saving decision often results in a costly outcome.

For example, in the early 2010s, vapor intrusion cases—when chemical vapors migrate from contaminated groundwater through the soil into the basements or foundations of buildings—were a big concern.

Those who took a proactive approach to understanding potential vapor intrusion concern during a property transaction or actively installing a soil vapor barrier during the construction of a new building were in a much stronger financial position than their counterparts, with less susceptibility to more conservative regulatory changes. Property owners who were in the reactionary position or surprised during a transaction, incurred exponentially higher costs as a result of installing mitigation systems to fix vapor intrusion after construction.

Much like vapor intrusion, it is anticipated that companies who can properly identify potential PFAS contamination concerns proactively, will be able to better assess the financial viability of a potential real estate asset.

Am I required to clean up PFAS contamination?

Whether or not you are required to clean up PFAS contamination depends on state regulations and historical or pending lawsuits.

Typically, cleanup abatement orders are issued against known polluters. A site would need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to know the potential exposure to regulatory enforcement actions.

Will PFAS contamination significantly impact my property value?

PFAS contamination can significantly impact your property value. The severity of exposure will depend on various factors that need to be explored such as:

  • Is the contamination from an on- or off-site source?
  • Is a viable responsible party actively cleaning up/addressing the contamination?
  • What media have been impacted (soil, groundwater, and/or drinking water)?
  • What are local and state regulations regarding PFAS and landowner protections?

PFAS devaluation example

In North Carolina, homeowners located in the massive (over 10-mile radius) contamination area of the GenX release from Chemours, are petitioning local tax assessors to reduce their tax burden given the expected reduction in home values.

How do I remove/mitigate/correct PFAS contamination?

Once a concern related to PFAS contamination has been identified at a site, a Phase II Subsurface Investigation is required.

Typical Phase II ESA investigations involve collecting soil and groundwater samples at various locations across the property, beginning at the potential source areas. Groundwater impacts must be sufficiently understood relative to separating on-site releases from larger regional sources. The data collected will be used to evaluate the necessity, scope and cost of PFAS risk mitigation or remediation. Every site will have its unique challenges.

PFAS Mitigation

PFAS Mitigation includes controlling the exposure to or further migration of PFAS in the environment. Direct exposure to PFAS contaminated soils can be done by capping of impacted soil to limit exposure to contaminated soils. Caps could include a specified thickness of soil, gravel asphalt or concrete.

PFAS Remediation

PFAS Remediation can include the direct removal of PFAS contaminated soil and extraction and above ground treatment for PFAS contaminated groundwater. PFAS contaminated soils can be directly removed from the site through soils excavation and off-site disposal in a relatively short time period. Soils would be removed such that residual PFAS in soils would be limited to a calculated safe concentration. PFAS contaminated groundwater would be extracted from the groundwater treated with an appropriate remedial technology, thus controlling further migration, and removing impacted groundwater from the subsurface. Groundwater remediation of PFAS will usually require many years of remediation.

AEI’s team of geologists and engineers are experienced in the investigation and remediation of PFAS contaminated properties. Please review AEI’s Site Mitigation Services page for more details on our mitigation, remediation and risk management services and contact AEI to help with your mediation strategy and course of action.

Steps you can take to mitigate PFAS risks

There are three steps you can take to mitigate your financial and legal risks associated with potential PFAS contamination:

Step 1

Addressing PFAS contamination begins with an understanding of the potential sources and the nature and extent of potential PFAS impacts on your property.

To begin, you can familiarize yourself with on- and off-site contamination sources and pathways. Download AEI’s PFAS Contamination Source Checklist.

Step 2

Include a discussion of potential PFAS contamination in your Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) report.

A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) prepared by AEI for your property will include an evaluation of potential for current and historic on- and off-site PFAS sources that may affect your property. If the potential for PFAS contamination is identified, additional actions and testing, such as a Phase II Environmental Site Assessment, may be warranted.

Step 3

AEI recommends that you talk to your environmental consultant to ensure that they are properly evaluating potential PFAS contamination risks. Contact AEI to take proactive measures.

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