Assessing the potential contributions of additional retention processes to PFAS retardation in the subsurface

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167 Scopus citations


A comprehensive understanding of the transport and fate of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the subsurface is critical for accurate risk assessments and design of effective remedial actions. A multi-process retention model is proposed to account for potential additional sources of retardation for PFAS transport in source zones. These include partitioning to the soil atmosphere, adsorption at air-water interfaces, partitioning to trapped organic liquids (NAPL), and adsorption at NAPL-water interfaces. An initial assessment of the relative magnitudes and significance of these retention processes was conducted for two PFAS of primary concern, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and an example precursor (fluorotelomer alcohol, FTOH). The illustrative evaluation was conducted using measured porous-medium properties representative of a sandy vadose-zone soil. Data collected from the literature were used to determine measured or estimated values for the relevant distribution coefficients, which were in turn used to calculate retardation factors for the model system. The results showed that adsorption at the air-water interface was a primary source of retention for both PFOA and PFOS, contributing approximately 50% of total retention for the conditions employed. Adsorption to NAPL-water interfaces and partitioning to bulk NAPL were also shown to be significant sources of retention. NAPL partitioning was the predominant source of retention for FTOH, contributing ~ 98% of total retention. These results indicate that these additional processes may be, in some cases, significant sources of retention for subsurface transport of PFAS. The specific magnitudes and significance of the individual retention processes will depend upon the properties and conditions of the specific system of interest (e.g., PFAS constituent and concentration, porous medium, aqueous chemistry, fluid saturations, co-contaminants). In cases wherein these additional retention processes are significant, retardation of PFAS in source areas would likely be greater than what is typically estimated based on the standard assumption of solid-phase adsorption as the sole retention mechanism. This has significant ramifications for accurate determination of the migration potential and magnitude of mass flux to groundwater, as well as for calculations of contaminant mass residing in source zones. Both of which have critical implications for human-health risk assessments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)176-185
Number of pages10
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Feb 1 2018


  • Air-water interface
  • NAPL-water interface
  • PFOA
  • PFOS
  • Partitioning
  • Perfluoroalkyl
  • Retardation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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