The race to remove PFAS from its remaining industry uses is on—and according to Langan’s Stewart Abrams, must be “a sprint, not a jog.”
In high demand: Abrams is a principal and director of remediation technology at Langan, a national environmental and engineering firm. He leads the consulting firm’s remediation practice, specializing in the treatment of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, chemical compounds that were used widely in household products—including fire extinguishers—for decades.
- It’s an area of expertise that will soon be highly sought after, given the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal earlier this year of drinking water maximum contaminant levels (MCL) of 4 parts per trillion (ppt) for both PFOA and PFOS. This will not only affect drinking water but will become an important standard for remediation sites as well.
- Langan has clients—including property owners and developers—who focus on the removal of PFAS from contaminated groundwater.
“What’s possible”: “Part of what Langan is doing is focusing on what is possible” regarding PFAS removal, Abrams said.
- “We’re looking at the treatment of groundwater and drinking water. We’re also working on how to deliver existing and new technologies to site cleanup. We’re going to have to move faster than ever before to bring these technologies to the marketplace. It’s a sprint, not a jog.”
Land remediation: Langan has long worked with property developers, helping them clear land of contaminants before building begins. PFAS issues, however, have changed the game considerably.
- “Now we’re looking at projects [for clients] where the question is, ‘How do you use water or land that’s been PFAS-contaminated?’” Abrams said.
- “Some companies have legacy contamination at the sites” they want to build on, and solutions aren’t always forthcoming, he continued.
Airports and PFAS: Another significant Langan customer sector? The aviation industry. Since 2022, airlines operating at California airports may no longer use PFAS in firefighting foam, a common use of the compounds for many years owing to their fire-extinguishing capabilities.
- “They’ve had to adopt new methods of firefighting at [California] airports,” said Abrams of Langan’s aviation clients in that state. “It’s hard because you need a lot of this fluid to address a fire given the amount of fuel on an airplane. The problem is that often the large water reservoirs at these airports have until recently contained a lot of PFAS.”
- That contamination isn’t limited to the water, Abrams added, but extends to everything the PFAS has touched. “Everything in the [firefighting] systems—the pumps, the nozzles, the piping—are contaminated, as is the storage reservoir itself. Part of the complexity of removal is cleaning all of it and then finding an alternative” surfactant, a chemical compound that can effectively extinguish fire.
- In addition, the sponge-like concrete that often lines the reservoirs at airports may have absorbed the chemical, requiring removal and replacement.
Finding solutions: About a decade ago, Langan and the New Jersey Institute of Technology began an informal research partnership.
- Members of Langan’s staff have access to NJIT’s environmental engineering laboratories, where they can set up experiments to solve client challenges. Now the company is leveraging that relationship to find solutions to PFAS problems.
- The labs are “a great [place] to bring in new ways of doing things with PFAS,” Abrams told us. “We’re exploring new treatment methods, new characterization methods, and we will be working to accelerate those technologies to market.”
Taking practical action: The strong carbon-fluorine bonds in PFAS chemicals render them harder to destroy than other contaminants, Abrams noted.
- “Unlike with other compounds—particularly volatile organic compounds and chlorinated solvents—with PFAS, we can’t quite track down all of it,” he continued. “It’s out there in the environment; it would be extremely difficult to chase down every molecule. Instead, we want to bring a theme of pragmatism to PFAS cleanup.”