Emerging Water Contaminants: PFAS and Microplastic

Water is essential to all life on earth, and no less so for human health, inasmuch as the majority of the human body is made up of water. But above all, water is the major component of the earth’s ecosystem, as more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface is covered by it. Hence, every government in the world is obliged to enforce environmental policies to protect the sustainability of this shared natural resource. Despite numerous water monitoring regulations that currently exist in developed countries, regulatory agencies continue to develop new regulations and revise existing ones to reflect the changing threats to our water supply, such as climate change and novel forms of water contamination. Emerging pollutants, especially PFAS and microplastics, are the current hot topic in the water industry since not much is known about the impact of these widespread contaminants on human health.


According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), GenX, and many other substances. GenX is a trade name for a technology that is used to make high-performance fluoropolymers, such as nonstick coatings, without the use of PFOA. These chemicals have been around since the 1940s and are used in many different industries such as foods, adhesives, electronic manufacturing, and household products. PFAS may be released into the air, soil, and water; and they are very persistent in the environment.

Currently, certain PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured in the US due to the PFOA Stewardship Program, in which eight major chemical manufacturers agreed to eliminate the use of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals in their products and as emissions from their facilities. However, other countries still produce these chemicals and can be imported into the US in consumer goods such as carpet, clothing, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber, and plastics.

Most people have been exposed to PFAS through contaminated water supplies, with PFAS accumulating and remaining in the human body for long periods of time. Even though the effects of PFAS to the human body have not been conclusively demonstrated, there is strong evidence that PFAS exposure can lead to immunologically detrimental effects in the reproductive organs, liver, and kidneys in laboratory animals. Currently, there are no maximum contaminant levels for PFAS set by EPA as further research is needed to formulate the regulation.  A new bill is being proposed in the US Senate to increase the EPA budget, which would include $20 million in funds for PFAS regulatory research.

Therefore, increasing concerns and explicit research budgets directed toward this group of chemicals will lead to opportunities for water testing instruments, especially LC/MS. LC/MS is the best technology for measuring and quantifying the PFAS content in water samples. Demand for PFAS testing will come from both environmental testing labs and academic research in order to help establish a protocol and standard level for this particular contaminant.


Since their creation in the early 20th Century, plastics have seen explosive growth, changing the way the modern world functions. Plastics come in many shapes and sizes, and cover a wide range of synthetic polymers. Despite their widespread use, the durable and inexpensive nature of plastics has led to a great deal of pollution. Plastics degrade very slowly due to their chemical structure and can last for centuries or longer. Plastic pollution impacts nearly all ecosystems on earth, with the infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” containing over 100 million tons of floating debris, primarily plastic in nature.

The degradation of plastics has created a new worry with microplastics. Microplastics are defined as particles of plastics less than 5 mm in diameter. These products can come from the breakdown of larger plastic pieces, or from microbeads commonly found in cosmetics and personal care products. These microplastics end up being mistaken as food by plankton and small fish, and ultimately end up further along the food chain. Outside of seafood, other potential sources of microplastic contact can include plastic water bottles, food containers, synthetic clothing like nylon or polyester, or wear from vehicle tires. The presence of microplastics is worrying, with microplastic fibers being found everywhere from household dust to distant places like Mount Everest.

The impacts of these microplastics have only recently been studied. Microplastics can impact the growth of plants and earthworms, while also being mistaken as food by plankton and small fish. Chemical additives to plastics like BPA have been found to cause health problems in humans, but their effect in concert with microplastics is uncertain. The effects of microplastics on human health are relatively unknown, but organizations like the EPA and WHO have made calls for more research.

The need to study microplastics has created an opportunity for IR and Raman spectroscopy. Water is traditionally not tested with these types of instruments, as the presence of water under FTIR can block out part of the spectra, or water can fluoresce and block out the Raman signal. The use of these instruments to analyze plastics in the chemicals/polymers industry has made them ideal for microplastics. FTIR is typically used for particles between 5 mm and 500 μm, while Raman and IR microscopy used for smaller particles down to 1 μm. By identifying and quantifying the microplastics in the environment, we can better understand effective ways to remove them. With the need to better understand microplastics, growth for these two technologies in water testing is expected to grow.

Overall, these emerging contaminants will stimulate the growth of water testing instrumentation, as these technologies are vital to study the impact of these new threats both to human health and to the environment. Water testing instruments are at the forefront of safeguarding this irreplaceable resource on our planet. A detailed analysis of this market can be found in SDi’s newest report:  Water Testing Instruments 2019: Environmental & Industrial Monitoring.  This report provides a strategic perspective on the current situation and projected potential for analytical techniques used for water analysis applications across all industries.