Subsurface transport potential of perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs): Column experiments and modeling

Jennifer L. Guelfo, Assaf Wunsch, John McCray, John F. Stults, Christopher P. Higgins

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29 Scopus citations


Transport of ten perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) was studied with one-dimensional (1-D) saturated column experiments using four soil types with an organic carbon fraction (foc) range of ~0–0.045. Columns were operated under conditions relevant to aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF)-impacted fire protection training areas to determine the ability of equilibrium transport parameters to describe 1-D PFAA transport, if rate-limited sorption influences PFAA transport, and if kinetic parameters can be used to evaluate factors causing rate-limited sorption. Results of initial screening of PFAA breakthrough found that over half of the breakthrough curves deviated from equilibrium transport and merited further investigation. Subsequent analysis showed that, in many cases, these deviations could be accounted for by considering the range of applicable equilibrium Kd values (i.e. based on standard deviation) applicable to the solid phase. Thus, transport of the majority of PFAAs in 3 soils with foc of 0–0.017 was not impacted by rate-limited sorption. Further, low sorption led to transport that was essentially simultaneous for the majority of PFAAs in these porous media. Exceptions were observed for long-chain PFAAs, and also in a fourth soil with foc of 0.045, which indicated the potential for rate-limited sorption to impact transport in some scenarios. Subsequent flow interruption experiments isolating kinetic behavior confirmed rate-limited sorption caused nonequilibrium transport. Linear free energy relationships (LFERs) developed in previous work to predict the inverse relationship between mass transfer coefficients (k) and sorption parameters (i.e., Kd) were used to estimate values of k for PFAAs in this study. Resulting k values were 10−3 to 10−8 h−1, consistent with previously measured kinetic parameters for other polar and anionic compounds. Models incorporating estimated k values resulted in improved predictions of breakthrough observed in nonequilibrium scenarios (R2 0.83–0.98), but k values will require further validation prior to broader application. This work illustrates rate-limited sorption considerations are needed to describe 1-D column saturated transport for some PFAAs and solid phases. At field scales, subsurface heterogeneity and PFAA precursor transformation may be equally or even more important in determining saturated PFAA transport, but kinetic parameters in this study may help to determine relative contributions of rate-limited sorption to overall transport.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103661
JournalJournal of Contaminant Hydrology
StatePublished - Aug 2020


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