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UBC research seeks treatment solution to ‘forever chemicals’ from water

Impact on water supply, soil already felt in U.S.
A memo was sent to water management officials across the Okanagan Valley earlier this year alerting them to the growing concern in the U.S. about chemical contamination caused by PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, and how detrimental they could be to the Okanagan watershed. (Tim Kulchyski file photo)

UBC researchers have developed a treatment to remove hazardous ‘forever chemicals’ from our environment.

Professor Madjid Mohseni has been at the forefront of the research effort, working with his colleagues in Quebec where polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, have been detected in that province’s water sources.

“In B.C. unfortunately, the data is lacking so we hope to start gathering that information to determine how widespread the problem is…we are at stage now to take what we have developed from the lab testing and test it out in field studies,” Mohseni said.

The alarm about the PFAS chemical contaminant issue was sounded earlier this year by Bob Hrasko, administrator for the Black Mountain Irrigation District (BMID).

Hrasko sent a memo to local water authority officials alerting them to the growing concern of the proliferation of PFAS chemicals being detected in both soil and water which don’t break down over time, hence the forever chemical label they are given.

“PFAS seems to be the number one issue regarding drinking water supply in the USA right now,” Hrasko stated in his memo.

PFAS chemicals are used in a variety of manufactured products because of their ability to withstand water, heat or oil, which also means they don’t break down in the environment.

Hrasko said BMID has tested its water supply for traces of PFAS but has not detected any as of yet.

Mohseni said he is aware of Hrasko’s concerns, and noted Health Canada studies have already confirmed the presence of PFAS in the blood of those tested.

“The good news is that presence is declining a little bit because of those legacy compounds which have been banned from use already,” he said.

The regulation of PFAS in Canada is in its infancy and exists currently only at the federal level and in a limited way in B.C. and Ontario. In the remaining provinces and territories, PFAS substances remain unregulated.

“It is very difficult to accurately estimate at this point, but the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)believes about half the population in the U.S., about 200 million, are going to be affected by PFAS…at this point, Canada’s regulations regarding use of these chemicals are not as stringent as what is proposed in the U.S. but we will be affected by this and we need solutions.”

Those solutions are two-fold; producing a chemical treatment to remove PFAS contamination from our soil and water supply, and for manufacturers to develop safer chemicals to create heat-, water- and stain-resistant products which don’t harm the environment, he said.

“If we all work together, what we do on the treatment side is one part of the puzzle, and what hope is to find a tool that will become part of the toolbox we can have to respond to this issue.”

One of the challenges, Mohseni noted, is the measure regulations set by the EPA calls for detection at four parts per trillion concentration.

“That is almost non-detectable as many analytical instruments at our current disposal are not able to measure that low…you need special equipment and the trained personnel to carry out that process, and there are few labs right now certified to confirm test results for that concentration level,” he said.

“But I am confident, where there is a will there will always be a way.”

At this stage, Mohseni said for coastal regions like Vancouver or Victoria where water is drawn from pristine sources, PFAS is less of a concern.

He says the Interior water supply, such as the Okanagan Valley, would be a greater focus for testing to determine the extent of the PFAS infiltration in local environments.

“Where there is some kind of wastewater influence in the drinking water supply, it is more likely you will see indications of rising PFAS levels in the water,” he added.

“We just don’t know how big the problem is yet.”

READ MORE: Chemical contamination warning for Okanagan watershed

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Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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