PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of man-made chemicals that have been widely used since the 1940s. From clothing and furniture to food packaging and electronics, countless industries have employed these versatile chemicals for their repellant properties. However, when a link between PFAS and adverse health effects came to light in the early 2000s, select PFAS were phased out of production in the United States. Despite these efforts, they have become rampant in the environment and water supply, because of continued use in overseas manufacturing, imported products, and a strong chemical bond that resists degradation. In fact, a recent study by the Environmental Working Group, estimates more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water. Below you will learn about PFAS, how to find out if your water is contaminated, and how to rid your water supply of these worrisome contaminants.
What are PFAS?
PFAS are a class of man-made chemicals created by the union of carbon and fluorine, which form one of the strongest bonds in nature. Consequently, PFAS don’t break down, are stable in water, and remain in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), it can take up to four years for levels of PFAS in the human body to reduce by half.
PFAS were introduced in the 1940s as repellants of water, oil, grease, stains, and even fire. They have been used in a wide variety of products and industries, such as non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, stain-proof fabrics, and fire-fighting foam. There are nearly 5,000 different types of PFAS, but perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are the most common and widely studied. U.S. manufacturers stopped producing PFOA and PFOS in the early 2000s, but due to their long half-lives and use overseas, PFAS are still ample in our environment.
What products are PFAS found in?
From pizza boxes to furniture, PFAS are found in countless household items because of their versatile repellant properties. Below are common products that contain PFAS.
- Pizza boxes
- Microwave popcorn bags
- Non-stick cookware
- Water-resistant clothing
- Stain-resistant carpets and furniture
- Cleaning products
- Paint, polish, and wax
- Fire-fighting foam
How do PFAS get into drinking water?
PFAS get into drinking water when they percolate from soil to groundwater or surface water. PFAS are water soluble and are commonly found in water near facilities that manufacture or used to manufacture PFAS and products that contain PFAS. Also, many contaminated areas are near facilities that use PFAS fire-fighting foam for training, such as military bases, airports, and fire-fighting training centers. Lastly, PFAS can get into water when products that contain PFAS are tossed into landfills. As the products break down, PFAS linger in the soil and seep into nearby water sources.
What level of PFAS is safe in drinking water?
70 parts per trillion (PPT) is the maximum safe level of PFAS in drinking water according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 70 parts per trillion is a health advisory level set by the EPA. While not enforceable, the health advisory is meant to educate public health officials and state agencies and to provide people with a margin of protection from exposure to PFAS through drinking water.
What are the health effects of PFAS?
The health effects of PFAS include reproductive, developmental, and immunological problems, but symptoms may vary. Since PFAS don’t easily break down and can accumulate in the human body overtime, the more exposure a person has, the greater the chance of negative health effects. The EPA has cited evidence linking PFAS exposure to the following:
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Suppressed immune system
- Thyroid hormone disruption
- Liver and kidney damage
- Low infant birth weight
How do you know if your water is contaminated?
You can request a municipal water quality report to find out if your water is contaminated, or you can have the water tested by a certified laboratory. Municipal water providers test the water supply frequently, and if you ask for the results, they are required by law to give them to you. If you desire further peace of mind or use a well, you can enlist a state certified laboratory to conduct a test. If you are on well water, the safety of the water supply is your responsibility, and it is highly recommended to test your water frequently. PFAS are odorless and tasteless, so testing is the only way to accurately detect them in water.
How to remove PFAS from water
PFAS can be removed from water through reverse osmosis, activated carbon filtration, and ion exchange.
A reverse osmosis (RO) system uses pressure to push unfiltered water through a semipermeable membrane. The membrane has small pores that block contaminants, such as PFAS, but allow clean water to flow through to the other side. Reverse osmosis is one of the most comprehensive water treatment methods to remove contaminants.
Activated carbon filtration:
Carbon filters contain activated carbon that has an abundance of pores along its surface and infrastructure. When water runs through the activated carbon, PFAS and other contaminants are captured or altered by a process called adsorption, and clean water emerges on the other side.
Learn more: Activated carbon filters 101
Ion exchange water treatment involves a chemical process in which undesirable dissolved ions, such as PFAS, nitrate, and sulfate, are exchanged for other ions with a similar charge. Ions are atoms or molecules with either a positive or negative electrical charge. Ion exchange water treatment systems contain an anion resin that captures negatively charge ions (e.g., PFAS) and a cation resin that captures positively charged ions (e.g., hardness causing calcium and magnesium).
Learn more: What is deionized water?
Does boiling water remove PFAS?
No, boiling water does not remove PFAS. In fact, heat does not break down PFAS, and instead concentrates the chemicals and renders them more dangerous if ingested.
Are PFAS in bottled water?
Yes, PFAS have been found in bottled water and canned carbonated water. A recent study by Consumer Reports tested 47 brands of bottled and canned water and found that most had detectable levels of PFAS, but only nine brands had levels over 1 part per trillion (PPT). Of the nine brands with levels over 1 PPT, two produce still water and seven produce carbonated water.
What is being done about PFAS in the water supply?
While the EPA health advisory is non-enforceable and there are currently no federal regulations regarding PFAS in water, things could soon change. The EPA is taking steps to establish a federal standard for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which if approved, would require states to revise and adopt water quality standards concerning PFAS. If levels are detected above 70 parts per trillion, the measure would compel states to find an alternative drinking water source and employ the appropriate water treatment system until the original source is deemed safe again. A handful of states, including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Vermont, have already adopted or proposed limits for PFAS in drinking water.
If you have any further questions about PFAS or the safety of your water supply, please don’t hesitate to contact us.