PFAS: A Threat for the Dutch Drinking Water Cycle?

Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a broad group of anthropogenic organic substances which have been extensively used since the 1940s. Due to their persistency, bioaccumulation and toxicity, PFAS are a threat for human health and the environment.

Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a broad group of anthropogenic organic substances, which have been extensively used since the 1940s in numerous industrial processes. Due to their persistency, bioaccumulation and toxicity, PFAS are increasingly being investigated around the world. In particular, these chemicals have been found in drinking water produced from sources in proximity of industrial sites, firefighting training areas and wastewater treatment plants. Due to the restrictions imposed on PFAS manufacture, manufacturers are increasingly adopting alternatives, which often include short- or even ultra-short chain PFAS as well as alternative (per)fluorinated compounds (e.g., perfluoropolyethers).

The number of alternative fluorinated compounds currently in use has consequently been increasing, and to-date more than 4000 chemicals have been classified as PFAS. Water contamination and resulting human exposures from legacy PFAS, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and emerging PFAS, such as GenX, is not new in the Netherlands. Recent developments regarding the occurrence of PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two of the most studied PFAS, in soil have brought the problem of environmental contaminations of PFAS back into the spotlight.

Analysis of PFAS

KWR has been active in the field of PFAS for over a decade, through various projects and the close collaboration with the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) of University of Amsterdam. Thanks to high-end instruments (e.g., tandem and high-resolution mass spectrometry) the quantification of trace level of these contaminants as well as broad screening and identification of emerging PFAS have become possible. Furthermore, KWR has recently developed analytical techniques for the detection and quantification of some upcoming PFAS in water samples.  Additional methods are currently being developed at KWR to analyse a much broader range of PFAS, including alternative and emerging PFAS.

Joint Research Programme project

In the context of a project within the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the water utilities, KWR is working on developing suspect and non-target screening methods and workflows for the analysis of a broad range of PFAS. These will be used to monitor the occurrence of emerging and alternative PFAS in surface-, ground- and drinking water, and determine the threat of PFAS contamination at vulnerable locations across the Netherlands. This research will allow us to obtain information about the occurrence and concentration of legacy and emerging PFAS in a selection of drinking water sources in the Netherlands.

These results will provide drinking water companies and authorities with crucial information about priority PFAS to be monitored in future monitoring programmes. The identified chemicals will be the target of follow-up toxicological studies to assess their health impacts. Furthermore, the developed methods will be applicable for the analysis of other environmental samples (e.g., soil and biota).