Mass-Based, Field-Scale Demonstration of PFAS Retention within AFFF-Associated Source Areas

Authors: D. Adamson, A. Nickerson, P. Kulkarni, C. Higgins, J. Popovic, J. Field, A. Rodowa, C. Newell, P. de Blanc, J. Kornuc
Published: March 2020 in Environmental Science and Technology.


Transport of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF)-impacted sites is limited by various processes that can retain PFAS mass within the source area. This study used concentration data obtained via a high-resolution sampling and analytical protocol to estimate the PFAS mass distribution in source and downgradient areas of a former firefighter training area. The total PFAS mass present at the site was approximately 222 kg, with 106 kg as perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) and 116 kg as polyfluorinated precursors. Zwitterionic and cationic PFAS represented 83% of the total precursor mass and were found primarily in the source and up/side-gradient areas (75%), likely due to preferential hydrophobic partitioning, electrostatic interactions, and diffusion into lower-permeability soils. Based on the release history and the high percentage of total PFAS mass represented by precursors (primarily electrochemical fluorination-derived compounds), the estimated conversion rate of precursors to PFAAs was less than 2% annually. Eighty-two percent of the total PFAS mass was encountered in lower-permeability soils, which limited the potential for advection and transformation. This contributed to a 99% decrease in the mass discharge rate at the far-downgradient plume (0.048 kg/yr compared to the near-source area (3.6 kg/yr)). The results provide field-scale evidence of the importance of these PFAS retention processes at sites where AFFF has been released.