Volatile Organic Compounds, PFOA, and PFOS Contaminants

Every well drilled is an opportunity to provide a total solution for your customer.

By Brad Walsh

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in thousands of products like gasoline, carpets, paints, glues, cleaners, plastics, dyes, and more. Photo courtesy Water-Right Inc.

Whether you’re new to water well drilling or have been a professional contractor for years, you might be surprised at the range of chemicals that are an emerging concern for the Earth’s water supply.

For many decades, companies have used extremely tolerant chemicals to make common commercial and household products work effectively. These potent chemical compounds, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are found in thousands of products like gasoline, carpets, paints, glues, cleaners, plastics, dyes, and more.

VOCs are chemicals that both vaporize into air and dissolve in water. Once released into groundwater, many VOCs are persistent and can migrate to water wells.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the detection of VOCs in aquifers is important because of the widespread and increasing use of groundwater for drinking water. The presence of elevated VOC concentrations in drinking water is a concern because of their potential to become carcinogenic (the tendency for a chemical to create tumors in the body).

Two additional contaminants have also emerged: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Like VOCs, these are also human-made compounds that do not occur naturally in the environment but are persistent in drinking water supplies, typically associated with manufacturing locations, industrial use, or disposal.

Environmental Working Group scientists stated this year they believe PFAS (the class of chemicals that includes PFOA and PFOS) are likely detectable in all major water supplies in the United States, almost certainly in all that use surface water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adds certain PFAS can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time. There is also evidence that exposure to PFOA can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. So, for the health and safety of your customers, these contaminants need to be taken seriously.

You won’t know for sure if VOCs, PFOA, or PFOS are present in each well you work on. However, there are several things you can do before drilling to identify the probability of these contaminants and help your customers understand the concerns.

Education Is Key

Drilling a new well generally means there is a new home being built or a new business opening. On top of everything else involved in that process, property owners might not know about possible contaminants in the ground or the precautions they should take to ensure their water is safe. They also may have never owned or maintained a well before, so education throughout the process is important.

There might be key indicators of possible contaminants you can communicate to your customer to help determine the need for testing. While traveling to the drilling site, take note of the proximity of airports, gas stations, landfills, or any industrial and commercial businesses.

If any of these are near the site, it might be an indication that VOCs, PFOA, and PFOS are in the water in that area or could be in the future. Since byproducts of human activity can take longer to show up in a water supply, it could be anywhere between one year and 10 years before they finally show up in test results.

For starters, testing the water at the time of drilling can reveal if there are any bacteria, lead, or other nuisance contaminants present. While some of these contaminants can be tested for quickly on site, keep in mind results from testing for VOCs, PFOA, and PFOS can only be determined by a lab.

You should also communicate any water quality-related information to your customer. Providing a simple checklist of best practices—like annual testing for bacteria, and 5- to 10-year testing for VOCs, PFOA, and PFOS—is a way to provide good after-sales service and help your customers improve the quality of their water.

Establishing a regular water testing schedule is important. A negative test for VOCs, PFOA, and PFOS today doesn’t mean they won’t appear a year or two from now. If water treatment is not something you provide, you should identify water treatment professionals in the area and recommend trusted companies customers can work with going forward.

The bottom line: Customers’ expectations are that water from a well is free, safe, and plentiful. If led to think this isn’t the case, they might recall the origin of their water and wonder if something could have been done differently during the well drilling phase.

They may wonder if the location of the well affected the water, if the process could have been done differently, or even why the water well contractor didn’t mention any concerns or offer advice on how to maintain the well.

Proactive customer service will demonstrate you care about the quality of water you’re helping provide, which will go a long way to making your company a trusted brand. Customers might be more willing to let others know about the quality of your work—knowing you had their safety and health in mind.

Each Well Drilled Is an Opportunity to Help

Ultimately, your customers will want an easy solution to maintain the quality of their water. Searching for another water expert to help, vetting references, and scheduling another appointment might not be things they want to do.

Ideally, you might work toward being a total solution provider as you help customers with their water needs, from drilling and setting the pump to treating the water and conducting annual testing.

While there is certainly a lot of work involved in expanding your business, every well drilled is an opportunity to provide a total solution for your customer.

Unfortunately, VOCs, PFOA, and PFOS are here to stay, and there will likely be even more emerging human-made contaminants in the years to come. Taking a more involved and proactive approach can help your customers improve their water, their health, and lives while helping you grow your business.

Brad Walsh is Water-Right Inc.’s regional sales manager for the southeast United States and has served in this role since June 2017. Prior to joining Water-Right, Walsh spent 5½ years with Pentair working with water treatment OEMs, distributors, and dealers throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Walsh is an active speaker and instructor for state water well associations.