Groundwater Contamination: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions


Groundwater, the invisible lifeline beneath our feet, plays a pivotal role in sustaining communities across the globe. Serving as a key drinking water source and a receiver of wastewater discharge, maintaining its purity is challenging yet paramount for the health and well-being of millions. As our understanding of water quality testing advances, so does our awareness of the myriad threats lurking below the surface. Two contaminants, in particular, have recently captured the attention of environmentalists, scientists, and water providers: Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and 1,4-Dioxane.

New EPA studies and guidelines signal increasing concerns surrounding these contaminants and emphasize their potential public health impact. We understand the responsibility water utilities hold as stewards of community health and safety. Understanding the causes, consequences, and solutions for groundwater contamination can help you accomplish your community’s water quality goals.

Groundwater and Its Importance to Your Community

Groundwater serves as the primary drinking water source where surface water cannot meet demand, and its significance extends beyond household consumption. Groundwater supports agriculture, sustains natural habitats, and ensures the well-being of ecosystems.

But why is it imperative to keep this resource uncontaminated? The answer lies in its direct impact on public and ecological health. High quality groundwater is easier to treat, directly impacting water utilities’ duties of delivering this resource to ratepayers. It's an increasingly challenging task, especially as contaminants like PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane emerge.

Recent studies and EPA guidelines have raised alarms about the presence of these contaminants in groundwater sources. PFAS has been dubbed a "forever chemical" due to its persistent nature. Also persistent, 1,4-Dioxane has been designated a likely carcinogen, raising concerns about its potential health impacts.

What Causes Groundwater Contamination?

Groundwater contamination is a multifaceted issue, with its roots often traced back to human activities. While nature filters and purifies water as it seeps through layers of soil and rock, some contaminants can still find their way into groundwater aquifers. Understanding standard contamination sources is the first step in devising effective strategies to combat them.

  • Industrial Releases: Industries, like chemical and manufacturing plants, often produce harmful chemical waste. When not properly managed, this waste can seep into the ground and contaminate the groundwater below. Over time, these pollutants accumulate and spread, posing significant environmental and public health risks.
  • Improper Waste Disposal: The disposal of household and industrial waste in landfills, when not adequately contained, can leach harmful substances into groundwater. Old landfills are a common culprit as they may not feature the lining that modern facilities require.
  • Agricultural Practices: The use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in farming can result in chemicals percolating through the soil and contaminating groundwater sources. Over-irrigation can also exacerbate this issue, pushing these chemicals farther into the ground.

PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane have become severe threats to water sources nationwide through these contamination sources. Their ubiquitous nature and the EPA's increased scrutiny have brought them to the forefront of water regulation discussions.

PFAS in Groundwater

These manufactured chemicals, lauded for their resistance to heat, water, and oil, are used in a wide array of products, from non-stick cookware to firefighting foams. The same properties that made them popular in industrial applications are the same that make them persistent in the environment, earning them the title "forever chemicals."

Many water systems across the U.S. have detected at least trace amounts of PFAS contamination in their source water. This widespread presence can be attributed to the extensive use of PFAS-containing products over the past 80 years, allowing them to remain in the environment for extended periods.

PFAS also highlights the intricate relationship between water sources and wastewater discharge. As PFAS-containing products are discarded, they often find their way into wastewater systems. Without adequate treatment, these contaminants pass through the wastewater treatment process and return to surface and groundwater bodies, entering public water supplies.

Recognizing the potential risks posed by PFAS, EPA has responded by proposing Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) for six PFAS chemicals in drinking water, signaling a more stringent approach to managing and mitigating the risks associated with these chemicals. The presence of PFAS in groundwater is not just an environmental concern; it's a public health imperative. As we continue to understand the full extent of PFAS contamination and its implications, it becomes increasingly evident that swift, informed action is necessary.

1,4-Dioxane in Groundwater

1,4-Dioxane, a synthetic industrial chemical, has steadily gained attention in environmental circles, drawing parallels with the concerns surrounding PFAS. Used primarily as a solvent and solvent stabilizer in chemical manufacturing, 1,4-Dioxane's ubiquitous presence in American groundwater sources is a testament to its widespread use and mitigation challenges.

As our understanding of water quality testing methodologies evolves, so has our awareness of the potential health risks associated with the 1,4-Dioxane concentrations found in aquifers nationwide. Its water-soluble nature and resistance to natural degradation make it a persistent carcinogenic threat to groundwater quality.

While both contaminants have distinct properties and origins, their impact on groundwater quality and public health draws striking similarities. Based on this and other similarities we’ve noticed between Dioxane and PFAS, the regulatory trajectory of 1,4-Dioxane could potentially mirror that of PFAS in many ways.

The EPA's most recent final risk evaluation for 1,4-Dioxane is a testament to the growing concerns surrounding this contaminant. The evaluation emphasized that 1,4-Dioxane "presents an unreasonable risk to human health," underscoring the urgency of addressing its contamination. As a result of contamination and health risk awareness, the regulatory landscape for 1,4-Dioxane is rapidly evolving.

Consequences of Groundwater Contamination

The ramifications of groundwater contamination extend far beyond the immediate environmental impact. As the primary source of drinking water for many communities, groundwater quality directly influences public health, local ecosystems, and the financial stability of municipalities. Understanding these consequences is crucial for water utilities as they navigate the challenges of ensuring clean and safe water for their communities.

The potential health risks associated with PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane contamination cannot be understated. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals, particularly through drinking water, can cause cancer, damage internal organs like the liver, kidneys, and respiratory system, and cause hormonal imbalances. These impacts make it imperative for water utilities to prioritize their monitoring and mitigation.

Groundwater contamination doesn't only negatively affect humans. Local aquatic habitats and terrestrial environments can also suffer from the presence of these harmful chemicals. Contaminated groundwater can lead to the degradation of natural habitats, impacting biodiversity and disrupting the balance of local ecosystems.

And it's not just a matter of environmental stewardship; groundwater contamination also presents a financial challenge to water and wastewater utilities. Treating contaminated water sources, implementing monitoring systems, and ensuring compliance with regulatory guidelines can place a significant financial burden on municipalities and sanitation districts. The upfront costs can escalate without proactive measures, leading to financial strain.

Maintaining public trust is of utmost importance. Groundwater contamination incidents can erode public confidence, especially when not addressed promptly. Ensuring transparency, effective communication, and swift action in the face of contamination challenges is crucial for preserving water providers’ reputations and fostering trust within the community.

Comprehensive Groundwater Contamination Solutions

Addressing groundwater contamination requires an intricate approach tailored to specific contaminants and their unique challenges. For contaminants like PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, targeted strategies are essential.

Strategies for Addressing PFAS Contamination:
  • Advanced Filtration Systems: Technologies such as granular activated carbon (GAC), Ion Exchange (IX) treatment, and high-pressure membranes have proven to effectively remove PFAS concentrations in raw water or wastewater effluent.
  • Soil and Groundwater Remediation: In areas with significant PFAS contamination, targeted remediation efforts can help reduce environmental burden. Techniques like soil washing, stabilization, and excavation can be employed to address contamination at the source.
  • Public Awareness and Education: Engaging with the community and raising PFAS awareness can lead to more informed choices and public buy-in, reducing public frustration and minimizing future contamination risks.
Strategies for Addressing 1,4-Dioxane Contamination:
  • Advanced Oxidation Processes (AOPs): AOPs generate powerful oxidizing agents, effectively breaking down 1,4-Dioxane. Technologies combining either ultraviolet light (UV) and hydrogen peroxide or ozone and hydrogen peroxide are most common.
  • Bioremediation: Certain microbial communities show the ability to degrade 1,4-Dioxane. Harnessing these microbes through bioremediation efforts can offer a solution to contamination challenges.
  • Monitoring and Early Detection: Implementing robust monitoring systems can help in the early detection of 1,4-Dioxane, allowing for timely intervention and mitigation.

The importance of being proactive in implementing these solutions cannot be overstated. By addressing contamination challenges head-on and employing the right strategies, water utilities can safeguard their communities, ensuring clean and safe drinking water for all.

How Can Municipalities Prepare?

Groundwater contamination is a complex challenge that requires a comprehensive approach. Addressing contaminants like PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane is not just about immediate remediation; it's about long-term planning, community engagement, and building a foundation for a sustainable future.

To achieve this, collaborating with technical, public relations, and legal experts who deeply understand groundwater contamination is crucial. These partnerships can give municipalities and water providers insight into the latest remediation techniques, regulatory updates, and best practices in water source management.

Some communities have already been obligated to invest in the remediation and treatment of these chemicals, and many others may follow. Regardless of which treatment method is best for your water system, it will likely come with costs that you or your ratepayers may be forced to bear. If you suspect 1,4-dioxane or PFAS has contaminated your water supply, it may make sense to explore whether litigation is the avenue to recoup some of those costs. SL Environmental specializes in contamination cases and works on a contingency fee, meaning your utility doesn’t incur legal fees until compensation is awarded.  

With the right strategy, your utility can win its battle with groundwater contamination. Partnerships and a proactive approach can safeguard water sources and ensure a healthier and safer future for their communities.

Contact the team at SL Environmental Law Group to learn more about proactive measures and strategies to address contamination concerns.