Per- and polyfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS) are all around us, in many places. You can find these persistent contaminants in our soils, water, and in our atmosphere. PFAS have ended up in our environment through the effluent of its manufacturing process, in the waste streams of industrial processes, and from the use of PFAS-based firefighting foam.
PFAS also appear in everyday items, such as flame-, water-, and stain-resistant sprays made for furniture, cookware, and clothing. These manufactured chemicals, used since the 1940s, can have negative health consequences for humans.
Thankfully, jurisdictions around the world are setting guidelines, regulations, and standards for specific PFAS. They are taking steps to assess their potential for human exposure. Progress has been slower in Canada, and we haven’t seen many regulations from Canadian provinces on PFAS. Here’s why we think they’re needed.
Uncertainty and gaps in research
Much of the research into PFAS has focused on two parameters: perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFAS, however, are a class of chemicals. Researchers have recorded over 4,700 individual compounds. And researchers typically observe PFAS in the environment as an assortment of several compounds, not just individual compounds.
While guidelines have slowly started taking shape at the federal level, here’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the lack of regulations on PFAS from Canadian provinces. This is both in the context of provinces’ contaminated sites programs—our current field of practice—or in the context of hazardous waste management or the wastewater industry.
This regulatory inertia is mainly caused by deep uncertainty and gaps in research on PFAS toxicity, as well as the physical properties for all but a select few of the chemicals in the family. We also have a limited understanding of the effect caused by the exposure to two or more compounds at one time. This results in health effects that may be greater than the sum of the effects of the individual compounds.
On a federal level, Canada took steps to deal with PFAS contaminants in the environment beginning in 2006. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)
Let’s look at what other countries are doing before examining the situation with Canadian provinces.
What are other countries doing?
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has published technical guidelines dealing with the sound management of wastes impacted by persistent organic pollutants (POP). These pollutants are chemical compounds that remain in the environment for a while. These guidelines include PFAS-containing wastes. The guidelines require that people dispose of waste in a way that destroys or irreversibly transforms the POP content.
In the U.S., PFAS oversight mainly sits with the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). In 2021, the USEPA developed its PFAS Strategic Roadmap. This plan sets out commitments focused on advancing PFAS research, restricting the release of PFAS into the environment, and accelerating the remediation of PFAS-contaminated sites.
As part of this initiative, the USEPA cut the de minimis exemption for PFAS for the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). This means that PFAS releases into the environment under a minimum threshold are no longer exempt from reporting to the TRI. The USEPA has also reduced its drinking water limits for certain PFAS by several orders of magnitude.
Some states have also established environmental limits for PFAS. In 2023, more than half a dozen states have brought in new measures—from labelling requirements to bans of PFAS in products. Buy-in at the state level, however, has not been unanimous.
Australia also leads the charge in addressing PFAS. In 2018, an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on a National Framework for Responding to PFAS Contamination came into effect to respond to PFAS contamination. Under the IGA, Australians have done several things. They’ve adopted a PFAS contamination response protocol, applied a PFAS national environmental management plan, and implemented guidelines to provide advice to government agencies involved in responding to PFAS contamination. A PFAS taskforce, established in 2016, coordinates these initiatives. Dealing with PFAS contamination has become a national priority.
Harmful contaminants like PFAS can find their way into water via several sources. (Image credit: Stantec)
The persistence of PFAS has generated a sustained scientific and political challenge to resolve, and it continues to be an issue in many places.
So, what’s Canada’s position on PFAS?
What the Canadian federal government is doing
On a federal level, Canada took steps to deal with PFAS in the environment beginning in 2006. That year, the federal government concluded that PFOS, its salts, and other compounds could enter the environment under conditions that could have a harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity. The human health assessment concluded that the 2006 levels of PFOS exposure were below levels that might affect human health. Since then, the government has taken additional steps:
- By 2012, the government included the chemicals spotlighted in 2006 in Canada’s Prohibition of Certain Toxic Chemicals regulations.
- In 2016, Health Canada expanded its drinking water screening values beyond PFOS and PFOA to include seven other PFAS. The department also expanded its soil screening value to include PFOA. A year later, Health Canada published soil screening values for seven additional PFAS.
- Between 2018 and 2021, Health Canada introduced drinking water screening values and soil screening values for two additional PFAS. Health Canada also reduced the drinking water screening value for one PFAS and issued drinking water quality guidelines for PFOS and PFOA.
- Other federal initiatives include the publication of a federal environmental quality guideline for PFOS by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). In 2021, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment issued soil and groundwater guidelines for PFOS, incorporating existing guidelines from Health Canada and ECCC.
- Lastly, in spring 2021, Canada announced its intention to address PFAS as a class, instead of individual compounds, since parameter-specific information is lacking for most PFAS.
But the existing federal guidelines are not enough. Canada’s provinces need to partner these guidelines with provincial regulatory guidance. Without this, there will be no drivers to take any action for the monitoring of—or the assessment and remediation of—these chemicals.
PFAS can be found in firefighting foams, as well as everyday items, such as non-stick cooking pans and flame, water, and stain-resistant sprays made for furniture and clothing. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)
What are Canadian provinces doing?
Canadian provinces are struggling with the uncertainties that surround the management of PFAS in the environment. This is particularly true of the uncertainties related to our understanding of the toxicity of many PFAS and their potential presence in our drinking water, or in a wide range of effluents streams with existing monitoring guidelines.
Provinces acknowledge the issue, mainly for PFOS and PFOA, and the potential presence of these contaminants in our wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) effluents and in terms of their relative toxicology. In the absence of hard data, sustainable cost-effective treatment technologies, and the potential for ambient levels found in the environment from multiple potential sources, provinces have not proposed any guidelines or standards beyond those proposed by federal government departments.
Some provinces are taking steps towards developing guidelines or standards. British Columbia currently provides soil standards for PFOS and perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS). The province also provides water standards for PFOS, PFOA, and PFBS in the water and soil schedules as part of recent amendments to its regulations.
Quebec provides surface water guidelines for PFOS and PFOA. Using these, groundwater guidelines can be calculated. In January 2023, Alberta issued a soil guideline for PFOS and groundwater guidelines for PFOS and PFOA.
We’ve seen movement in Ontario when it comes to drinking water. In 2021, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks released its annual report on drinking water. The ministry documented its recommended interim drinking water advice when it comes to PFAS. The following year’s report, released in December 2022, states that Ontario is currently working with Health Canada and other provinces and territories to develop new guidelines for PFAS as a group based on treatment technology.
Considering the environmental and human health challenges created by these chemicals, provinces need to start proposing standards for PFAS for which we have a baseline of reliable information related to their environmental fate, transport, and toxicity. This should include environmental standards for soils and groundwater, waste management and waste disposal, and effluent monitoring from various sources such as WWTPs and landfills.
Good news and bad news
The good news is that people are paying attention to PFAS. And not just through litigation, but also through public awareness and media coverage. The focus on PFAS is no longer limited to just manufacturing plants and firefighting applications. We’ve seen a new awareness of its use in consumer goods and in industrial applications. The USEPA and the Australian government have stepped up to the forefront of regulating PFAS. They’re laying the groundwork for other forms of government to follow their lead.
The bad news? Although there is now an established guideline for PFOS, the Canadian government still lags in setting guidelines for other PFAS. This is concerning as many PFOS phase-out programs are just substituting out PFOS and PFOA for other lesser known PFAS. And yet, having only the single regulated parameter at the federal level is better than the lethargy of most Canadian provinces on regulating PFAS in the environment.
It’s time for the scientific community to work under federal and provincial leadership (with the associated funding), and in collaboration with the international community, to produce sustainable solutions that are based on sound risk management. Not risk aversion. Canada would benefit from a strong federal initiative towards PFAS comparable to what we are seeing in the US and Australia.
Along with a federal initiative, Canadian provinces must act. We need to protect the environment and ourselves from the effects of these contaminants. It’s time for leadership.
Justin Hains, an environmental scientist and project manager at Stantec, works across a broad range of sectors on environmental site assessments and remediation programs. He also provides technical support to PFAS investigation and remediation projects across Canada.
Sasha Richards has 15 years of experience in environmental engineering and risk assessment. Sasha, who also works at Stantec, has developed a strong skill set in human health and ecological risk assessments and environmental site assessments. She specializes in the management of PFAS impacted sites.
Featured image: The persistence of PFAS has generated a sustained scientific and political challenge to resolve, and it continues to be an issue in many jurisdictions.
(Image credit: Adobe Stock)