Los Alamos National Laboratory Monitors Emerging Issue Of PFAS

Some common sources of PFAS. Courtesy image


Although man-made chemicals known as PFAS – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – have been around since the 1950s, the term PFAS is recently appearing more and more in the news.

PFAS as a family contains more than 4,700 unique compounds and research has shown that it can cause adverse health issues in humans, including immunological, developmental or reproductive, hepatic, hormonal and carcinogenic effects. Among the products where PFAS have been used are food packaging, cleaning products, stain-resistant carpet treatments, nonstick cookware and firefighting foam. People can be exposed to PFAS through ingestion, dermal contact and inhalation as a result of exposure to food, water, dust, soil and consumer products.

Here in New Mexico, many people became aware of the PFAS issue just two years ago when the state sued Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases because PFAS had migrated to public and private wells offsite. The U.S. Air Force used a firefighting foam containing PFAS beginning in the 1970s at multiple facilities around the country.

The Los Alamos Reporter reached out to Los Alamos National Laboratory to find out more about PFAS and its potential uses at the Lab over the years. She met virtually with Kassidy Boorman, Pollution Prevention Program Lead who specializes in PFAS source reduction, process improvement and proactive environmental protection. Also on hand were Bill Foley, an environmental compliance professional with more than 30 years of experience in environmental management in both groundwater and surface water programs, and Karen Armijo, manager for permitting and compliance programs for the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration Los Alamos Field Office.

Boorman noted that PFAS regulatory limits have not been established for environmental media at a federal or state level.  

“Regulations are complicated and evolving at this point. New Mexico has, however, listed three PFAS as a toxic pollutant for underground and surface water protection regulation: perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS),” she said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) total for PFOA and PFOS but this limit is only for drinking water so it will not cover the many other media that are being sampled for PFAS nationally including at LANL.

“One piece of cool trivia I’d like to talk about – and it’s good and bad – is there are evolving detection capabilities with analytical labs for PFAS at this time. One thing to know is we are aware of 4,730 PFAS in existence right now of these manmade chemicals. Currently we are able to test to detect 39 of those so this is actually the gold standard right now for what commercial labs are able to detect,” Boorman said. “So even though we can look for those 39 PFAS, they may not be detected if they’re not present. That’s just to demonstrate that the field is still evolving and we may not be able to see everything right now with those existing analytical methods.”

Boorman said LANL became aware of PFAS as an emerging contaminant in 2018 and took immediate action to begin investigating any possible presence of PFAS on the site and generally gaining a better understanding of it.

“To do this, we searched LANL waste records archives and our institutional chemical inventory system. We have benchmarked with other DOE sites and we work closely with the DOE PFAS Working Group as well,” she said.

In 2019 testing was initiated across the site to determine if PFAS was present in the environment. LANL has since looked at its institutional chemicals inventory which contains records of any chemicals that have ever been in its inventory but may not be onsite anymore as well as the chemicals that are still active and are still onsite.

“We have done our first pass search of those records. I think work still needs to be done. So far we have found 15 different products that contain PFAS,” Boorman said.

Some of the products found to have been used were for photographic processing and soldering systems and the uses of commercial products that may contain PFAS are diverse and not always obvious when searching for them.

One source of PFAS is aqueous film-forming fire suppression foam (AFFF) which is typically used in open-source applications like foam laydown yards or as unused products but some uses are in between. The AFFF is formulated with PFAS to withstand heat and oil in fires involving flammable liquids.

“As we were looking at PFAS onsite, we did discover that two buildings have active fire suppression systems that contain the AFFF and water. One is known as the Dual Access Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility (DARHT). Due to required maintenance of those active fire suppression systems, some of the contents, not all, are released during quarterly testing to make sure the systems are in good shape. When the contents are released, they are stored in storage vessels to contain them so that they are not released to the environment,” Boorman said.

She said the end process for disposal is still being determined so LANL will hold onto the contents of the storage vessels until that path has been determined.

“Again, this is very much an evolving field so we are looking into this very diligently,” Boorman said.

She noted that a recent news article had listed as groundwater sample results some samples that were actually taken from the storage vessels.

“Because they have a water component to them, they had a water data qualifier in our Intellus New Mexico database and they were not sorted out in the search within Intellus. So they were captured accidentally as groundwater and that issue has been corrected,” Boorman said.

Intellus New Mexico is a publically accessible database which provides access to environmental monitoring data collected in and around LANL by both the LANL and the NMED’s DOE Oversight Bureau.

As well as the two active fire suppression systems, there is also an inactive fire suppression system that has contained an AFFF product in the past. At the DAHRT facility, the regular sampling that occurs around the facility includes soil sediment and vegetation. No PFAS presence was found in the vegetation. PFAS was detected in sediment around the facility except on the north side and the meaning of the results is still being determined.

One thing to know when you’re looking at soils and sediment for any sort of solid where the water has been lost, those levels will concentrate of anything you’re looking at,” Boorman said.

She said LANL has looked at its wastewater treatment plant for PFAS.

“It’s actually common as we’ve looked at this issue nationally that wastewater treatment plants show higher levels of PFAS and can even be a contributor of PFAS – just because these various commercial products that consumers use may contain PFAS that goes down the drain and go into that wastewater treatment plant. LANL’s system is no different. We did actually sample there and it does have detected levels of PFAS. We did see 84 ppt capturing the three NMED listed types of PFAS. If we looked at those 39 types that I previously talked about, we did see about 189 parts per trillion so it went up a little bit,” Boorman said.

As far as outgoing treated effluent, the level went down to 38.1 ppt for the three NMED listed PFAS. Looking at all possible PFAS detected, the cumulative amount is 127 ppt, she said.

“The system also has sludge, which anyone who is familiar with wastewater treatment systems knows sludge is produced as part of that process – the solids. Some of it can be fed into the start of that system and some of it will go on. We sampled some of the sludge and it came in at 165,000 ppt, which is more concentrated because you’re looking at a solid. We’re still looking into that and it’s being further interpreted,” Boorman said.

She said looking at the industrial outfalls onsite, five sources were sampled which were non-detects for the NMED-listed PFAS or they were low-detects which is overall very good news.

“We did have one low-detect at a cooling tower outside our SIGMA building for that NMED listed PFAS. We sampled from cooling towers at TA-3, the main campus area closed to town – and Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility at TA-50 and a cooling tower out at TA-55. Those results were captured in the previous statement,” Boorman said.

She said there’s plenty of work left to be done.

“LANL is going to continue actively monitoring for PFAS all over the site including investigating for potential sources for what we’re seeing. That’s being taken very seriously. We’re moving forward on that quite strongly. We’re also in the middle of researching if we can use an alternative product instead of that AFFF foam in our active fire suppression systems in the two buildings I mentioned. We’re looking for the best disposal path for the contents of the storage vessels from the quarterly maintenance of those two facilities and we are going to hold onto them until that path is determined,” Boorman said. “We will be continuing with ongoing community outreach with stakeholders and delivering information as we learn more.”

While PFAS investigation and remediation is clearly going to be one of the leading environmental challenges of the future around the country, the issues at LANL appear to be nowhere as extreme as they are in other parts of the country in other facilities.

“We are tracking the PFAS issue on a national level and following the research that is coming out from different facilities and laboratories nationwide for monitoring and disposal trends as well as suggestions for how we might apply them to operations and how we might improve our environmental compliance strategy to include some of those techniques,” Karen Armijo said.