Published on 07 May 2020
PFAS crisis as a wake-upcall
When most Dutch people had never heard of PFAS, the Per- and PolyFluorAlkyl Substances group, Martijn van Houten, environmental chemistry engineer at Witteveen+Bos, had it in his top ten of substances that are extremely harmful to our soil and water system. This awareness was shared by colleagues from TTE Consultants and Arcadis and resulted in the establishment of the PFAS Expertise Centre in 2012. In the year 2020 there is a widely supported awareness and shared urgency to deal with PFAS. The challenge is to find affordable and effective solutions.
What triggered Martijn van Houten to focus on PFAS? ‘As an environmental chemical engineer I was investigating the quality of soil, groundwater or dredge spoil. This often involved a list of substances that are to be found in soil almost 'standard'. These studies almost never include substances that have only been used for the last decades. While it is known that these substances also have a negative environmental impact. From my personal drive and my role as an environmental professional, I felt that research into these new contaminants was necessary.'
‘One of these contaminants is PFAS. We saw a lot of attention for this substance group worldwide,' says Martijn. ‘PFAS have useful properties that make our daily lives easier. They can withstand high temperatures and make materials water, grease or dirt repellent. As a result, these substances are used in many products and processes, such as fire extinguishing foam, paint, pans, pizza boxes, ski wax and stain protection. Almost everyone has products with PFAS in their home'.
Scientific research repeatedly shows that PFAS do not break down, but accumulate in the environment and have negative effects on our health, water quality and ecology. PFAS are also called 'forever chemicals'. The substance group is like a hydra, with thousands of different substances, each with a unique character. That cannot be captured with one approach. It takes ingenuity to find the right solution to remove PFAS from our environment.’
PFAS are also called 'forever chemicals'. The substance group is like a hydra, with thousands of different substances, each with a unique character. That cannot be captured with one approach.Martijn van Houten
Martijn continues: ‘In the beginning it proved difficult to explain clearly that PFAS also have less good properties and can be harmful to our health. New scientific information about this came almost daily. I discovered that this information was barely accessible to practitioners, so the worldwide concerns for these substances were not seen in the Netherlands.' Over the past year the awareness has grown that this substance group deserves attention. Was this also the reason for the PFAS crisis that arose in mid-2019? 'No', says Martijn. ‘Worldwide, people are worried about PFAS in surface water and drinking water. In the Netherlands, a problem arose with the reuse of soil and dredge spoil when the policy was changed in mid-2019. Our legislation for the reuse of soil and dredge spoil is unique in Europe, but turned out not to be suitable for non-standard substances such as PFAS. We now realise this and we also see the effect for the application of soil in deep sand wells, for example. In the case of a non-standard substance, almost nothing is permitted and stagnation occurs as a result.’
According to Martijn, prevention is the best solution. ‘This is of course an open door, but what doesn't come into our environment doesn't have to be taken out either. But prevention does not work if the effects of substances only come to light later, for example through improved research techniques. Other solutions must then be devised, such as a legal ban on the use of substances or the local removal of undesirable situations'. At Witteveen+Bos we focus on both tracks, says Martijn. ‘Together with our clients and market players, we are working on solutions to remove these substances from the soil and from the water. In this participatory development, we will investigate the best available, sustainable and affordable techniques for each situation. This tailor-made approach requires cooperation in the chain.'
‘The other track is to come up with solutions to be ahead of a second PFAS crisis. This requires policy solutions and we advise the public domain in developing an approach, or we are working on new policy. We do this, for example, in our POPUP project'.
Witteveen+Bos is at the heart of developments around PFAS. ‘The result of eight years of thinking about PFAS is the general recognition that this is a very annoying substance group. This is now very explicit. We are involved in various technical solutions to get PFAS out of the soil. We do this both at the request of our customers and on our own initiative.'
‘But we also look further; how can we deal with non-standard substances in the soil and water? We do this in the project called POPUP. In this project, a consortium of Arcadis, Bioclear Earth, TTE Consultants and Witteveen+Bos are working with end users on step-by-step plans that can be used to take action if a non-standard substance or new contamination becomes apparent. These end users are provinces, municipalities, water boards and environmental services. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Works and the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management are also working on this project. These step-by-step plans can prevent problems such as PFAS in the future.'
Martijn continues: 'PFAS has given me a lot of insight into the way in which we have conducted our soil policy over the past decades and what needs to be improved. On the one hand it concerns preventive policy and the actions of governments. With the advent of the Environment Act, it will become even more important to make regional considerations and to be able to justify them. This requires a participatory process in which all actors in the chain are involved. But this also requires the use of knowledge and expertise in the chain. On the other hand, we can't prevent everything. Devising solutions and realising them remains necessary. Innovation must be stimulated in order to develop techniques and retain knowledge. In our POPUP project we continue to work on advice for this. Thanks to PFAS, this wake-upcall has also arrived in the Netherlands.'