Technical Support – International Study On Aquatic Fluoride Toxicity & Regulatory Review

Fluoride-containing compounds are critical to the production of many industrial processes, including the fluoridation of public drinking-water supplies. Global production of fluoride is more than 3 million tons annually. Although the industrial and commercial use of fluoride is widespread, tractable and pragmatic regulations for the management of fluoride in the aquatic environment are limited.

EHS Support is undertaking a major international study with industry groups to establish an appropriate regulatory framework for defining appropriate discharge limits and better manage the permitted release of fluoride to the aquatic environment. This study synthesizes previous work conducted by EHS Support and industry group members focused on understanding fluoride fate, transport, and toxicity. We are investigating existing fluoride regulations, surface-water fluoride background conditions, and ecotoxicity literature to support a comprehensive understanding of the current state of the science of surface water fluoride.

This study, which leverages toxicological assessments conducted in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia, has demonstrated that agricultural activities and coal burning are the dominant anthropogenic sources of fluoride and that traditionally-regulated industries, such as refining and smelting, make up a small proportion of fluoride mass loadings in the environment. While fluoride has been shown to have both acute and chronic toxicity in freshwater and marine environments, numerous ameliorating factors support higher aquatic criteria than are currently being used. Further, it appears that the findings from toxicological studies at operational facilities likely reflect the impacts of other factors (e.g., other metals, cyanide, or chemical oxygen demand [COD]).

This project was accomplished through a transdisciplinary team of EHS Support staff, including toxicologists, ecologists, and biogeochemists, all of whom leveraged their international experience to assess fluoride fate, transport, and risk within the aquatic environment. The initial phase of this investigation was completed in 2020, with further studies underway in 2021. Assessments completed to date support the application of aquatic criteria up to three times greater than existing criteria for fluoride. Further studies show that observed impacts are most likely associated with other constituents, many of which can be more easily managed and treated. The Phase I work can be accessed through the International Aluminium Institute publications page (Phase I Report  and Summary Presentation).

It is anticipated that the final study report and scientific papers will be released by mid-2021 and, leveraging this information, changes to the regulatory guideline values at federal and state levels will be sought in late 2021. The impacts of these changes on businesses where fluoride is a critical ingredient are considered business critical, as they will lead to a major reduction in management/monitoring costs and will eliminate/reduce the scale of future plant upgrades to support compliance with fluoride discharge criteria.

For additional details on this project and EHS Support’s experience with fluoride fate, transport, and ecological risk assessments, please contact Dr. Samuel Parker.

See more of our project experience.