How to discuss emerging contaminants with consumers
We are all inundated with the 24-hour news cycle. Headlines and features about everything, from the latest technology to what you should have for dinner, are everywhere. The chemicals present in tap water are no stranger to these headlines and articles, and in this case, rightly so. Research continues to uncover new contaminants of emerging concern, and the media lights up each time.
Among the most frequently discussed emerging contaminants are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a category of more than 1,000 man-made chemicals. Two of the most concerning ones, PFOA and PFOS, have been phased out of manufacturing in the U.S. However, what makes them so appealing to manufacturers is what makes them a problem in water systems: they do not break down over time, so they accumulate in the human body. The U.S. EPA is working on establishing standards, but it will be some time before they become enforceable. Meanwhile, health-conscious consumers are not willing to wait.
Adding to that, another category of emerging contaminants causing concern is pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PCPs). Although only found in small concentrations in tap water, we still are not sure how these contaminants may interact to impact our health. Some PCPs contain endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs), which can lead to ecological concerns as well.
Trends in search engine queries can provide insight into consumer awareness of emerging contaminants. People are more educated and concerned about the quality of their tap water in general. Search volume for, “is tap water safe to drink,” has increased by more than 50% since January 2020. In certain markets, some people are losing confidence in the water coming from their local utility.
Diving into the search volume of, “PFAS in water,” shows even more extreme growth in consumer awareness. Since January 2020, search volume for that term has more than doubled. Search results have also more than doubled, which means more websites and publications are writing about the topic. Much of the search activity is coming from the Midwest and Northeast regions, which are hit especially hard by these contaminants.
The public is catching on, as search queries asking about what PFAS in water even is continues to increase. While consumers may have heard of these chemicals, they do not as a whole know much about them. So, they take to the internet for answers. Search volume for specific and individual PFAS chemicals, however, is relatively low.
Consumer concern about emerging contaminants is also driven by media coverage. In March 2008, an Associated Press investigation was published on pharmaceuticals and PCPs in water which received enormous amounts of coverage. That same month, search volume for “pharmaceuticals in water” was higher than it had ever been before or has been since. After that, search volume has wavered, spiking notably whenever more media coverage on the topic arises. As of June 2021, there are approximately 6,000 searches per month for all related terms combined, and over 100 million search results to answer the call.
Legislation at the State Level
As of June 2021, six states have established a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for one or more PFAS substance. These states include Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont. All of these MCLs were established in 2020, with the exception of one substance in New Jersey for which the MCL was put in place in 2018. Ten other states have some sort of guidelines, notification levels, regulations, or action plans in place surrounding PFAS. Additionally, nine states in 2021 have had bills in the state legislature to enact MCLs for PFAS substances in drinking water. This means that over a third of U.S. states may have MCLs for at least one PFAS in the next couple of years.
The research on pharmaceuticals and PCPs in drinking water indicates that the levels at which they occur are not enough to impact humans, so there have been no regulations implemented thus far. However, research has indicated that some PCPs, when found in waterways, may have strange effects on the local fauna due to their endocrine-disrupting properties. Depending on what future research shows, we may see changes to wastewater treatment for ecological health reasons. Additionally, we do not yet understand if different types of pharmaceuticals and PCPs interact in a way that could be harmful. Although right now they do not appear to impact us, some consumers are still concerned about the potential for danger from contaminants in their water.
How to Discuss Emerging Contaminants with Consumers
The media coverage has people actively looking for ways to remove these contaminants from their tap water, providing a great opportunity for our industry to solve this emerging problem. Since emerging contaminants can have a serious impact on health and there are still few regulations, a more conscientious approach than some other forms of treatment is required.
In areas where these contaminants are a significant issue, it is easy to bring to the consumer’s immediate attention. However, take care not to rely on fear to sell water treatment solutions. Use the known research and scientific developments to back up your claims. If you offer a product certified for the reduction of emerging contaminants, take advantage of the independent third-party test results. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that while we know more than we used to, there is still research that needs to be done to find the right solution for some emerging contaminants.
Staying Ahead of MCLs
The current administration is moving rapidly on PFAS regulations. Within the next few years, there will be nationwide MCLs, at least for PFOA and PFOS. There are already some local water utilities treating for PFAS, and that number will grow as enforcement of state-level MCLs begins. In the meantime, consumers are searching for ways to protect themselves and their loved ones, and they are turning to bottled water or in-home treatment.
Testing and certification standards for water treatment products need to be reevaluated as more states adopt PFAS regulations. The current 70 parts per trillion (ppt) standard is not low enough to match any of the state-level MCLs. It is also likely that the EPA’s MCL will be lower than its current health advisory limit. In addition, new certifications need to be developed for other PFAS substances in order to further protect the consumer. Standards for pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants should be routinely examined as more and more come to light and treatment technologies evolve.
Some may suspect that in-home treatment for contaminants for which MCLs are currently in development will soon become obsolete. However, that is unlikely to be the case. Based on what we have seen with other contaminants, there will continue to be situations in which municipal treatment is not enough. Future research may also indicate that the established MCLs are not enough protection against health risks, like what has recently been in the media about lead. Home water treatment will continue to be a valuable investment to health-conscious consumers.
Without a doubt, future research will uncover more information about known emerging contaminants as well as new ones. There are still contaminants for which we do not yet have sufficient treatment methods. As a response, the water treatment industry must focus on developing new technologies for these chemicals. We also must improve upon existing certification standards and develop new ones to protect the consumer and provide peace of mind. More companies need to release POE and POU products which are certified to the current standards. Puronics, for example, recently released an under-counter reverse osmosis system certified for PFAS and pharmaceutical reduction.
Science is rapidly evolving, so now the water treatment industry must rise to the task.