Guidance on Perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS) in soil and water environments


CIRIA is in the process of developing a ”Guidance on Perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS) in soil and water environments” and has appointed LQM, TetraTech and ALS as research developers.

E3P are proud to be on the project steering group, with Stephanie Cox, Technical Director, providing industry review and input from the perspective of an environmental consultant, specialising in contaminated land and risk assessment.

Perfluorinated alkylated substances or PFAS are a large complex group of manufactured chemicals that are ingredients in various everyday products. They may be known as Perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) or Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

They are a group of chemicals that have properties that allow them to repel water and oil and are used to keep food from sticking to packaging or cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and to create firefighting foam that is more effective plus many more uses. PFAS are used in a variety of industries such as aerospace, automotive, construction and electronics. Low levels of PFAS exposure can be through food we eat from soil and water that helps the food grow, certain food packaging and even in some types of makeup (foundations, lotions, waterproof mascara etc).

PFAS molecules have a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, which is one of the strongest bonds, therefore these compounds do not degrade easily in the environment and have adopted the name of ‘forever chemicals’ based on their persistence in the environment.

They have also shown evidence of bioaccumulation, and at high concentrations, certain PFAS have been linked to adverse health effects in laboratory animals that may reflect associations between exposure to these chemicals and some health problems such as low birth weight, delayed puberty onset, elevated cholesterol levels and reduced immunologic responses to vaccination. There is currently a very limited amount of information on the health effects and chemical concentration so this is developing constantly.

We see many stories looking into the effect of PFAS and their prevalence on earth, with many people now seeing these news stories on mainstream news feeds, not only within the construction industry. Only this week, the BBC reported on the prevalence of PFAS in rainwater, exceeding the ‘safe levels’.

There are currently US advisory levels, which have been lowered over the past 20 years as scientists have gained more information on PFAS. The Netherlands in 2018 set new limits on concentrations of PFAS in soil, but this then resulted in around 70% of building projects which involved any form of soil removal or excavation of materials, to be halted until the levels were relaxed. The general opinion in the construction industry is that if you apply the advisory levels everywhere, there would be very limited areas you could actually build. There is very clear evidence that guideline values for both soil and groundwater need working on to create safe allowable values that also ensure that development can proceed in an economic manner.

It is the intention of CIRIA to develop guidance on PFAS in the soil and water environments to primarily increase the current understanding of the risk of PFAS to human health and other receptors in addition to improving construction professionals awareness of the relevant legislation and therefore their responsibilities and potential liabilities. Stage 2 of the project will then provide guidance to assist UK practitioners assess and manage the risks of PFAS in the environment.

As an emerging group of contaminants, data is being gathered daily and understanding amongst construction professionals is building constantly. However, we are a long way off having a full true picture of these ‘forever chemicals’.

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