PFAS in Drinking Water: What You Need to Know

Posted by
Cameron Wise on May 31, 2024

The hype around PFAS is currently at its peak because of the potential health effects associated with exposure to them. Despite their prevalence in the world, little is known about how PFAS chemicals interact with the human body. This uncertainty has led to regulations being put in place by the EPA to help mitigate human exposure to these chemicals. In this article, you can discover answers to common questions about PFAS chemicals in drinking water and how to remove them.

What are PFAS chemicals?

PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” and short for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” is a group of thousands of chemicals present in many non-stick and water-resistant products used in homes every day. PFAS began being commonly used in manufacturing in the 1950s, and many types of PFAS continue to be used today. The main problem with these chemicals is their longevity in both the environment and the human body. According to an article published by the National Institutes of Health, the estimated half-lives of PFAS chemicals in the human body range from 0.12 years at the shortest to just under 3 years at the longest. A PFAS chemical with a half-life of 3 years will still possess a concentration of 12.5% 9 years after it enters your body. The health effects of PFAS on humans are still unknown, so the length of time they linger in the human body is a concern.

What PFAS are in water?

The most common PFAS chemicals in water are PFOA and PFOS. While these chemicals are no longer used in manufacturing in the United States, they still pollute water supplies, air, soil, and even human blood. The CDC claims that most people in the United States have PFAS in their blood, but there have been declines in the levels of PFOA and PFOS in human blood since the early 2000s. However, other PFAS chemicals that are still in use maintain their presence in blood.

Where are PFAS chemicals used?

PFAS are used in a wide variety of items that are utilized in everyday life. They are used in water- and oil-repellant products, firefighting foam, safety equipment, and coating for electrical wires. From non-stick pans to stain-proof carpets to waterproof clothing, PFAS chemicals undoubtedly increase the quality of products that they are used in. However, because they are so useful, these chemicals have been used so abundantly that they have contaminated the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. While the health effects of PFAS are only speculatively based on animal studies, the symptoms displayed in animals exposed to PFAS signal there are likely undesirable health effects in humans.

firefighting foam

How does PFAS get into water supplies?

PFAS commonly reaches water supplies through industrial waste, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and firefighting sites. PFAS in these applications can contaminate surface water in the form of runoff or penetrate soil to contaminate groundwater. Private water supplies, such as private wells, are often contaminated by local facilities. If your home is near an industrial site and you receive water from a well, you likely have higher levels of PFAS in your drinking water than those living farther from an industrial facility.

What are the health effects of PFAS?

According to the CDC, the effects of PFAS on human health are still being examined. What we currently know about the dangers of PFAS are through animal studies. In most of these studies, the PFAS levels that animals are exposed to are greater than the levels that humans regularly encounter. This means the symptoms animals demonstrate are likely more severe than those humans would experience. Additionally, just because animals show some negative symptoms due to PFAS exposure does not mean that humans will experience these same symptoms. With that in mind, the CDC states that some animals displayed the following symptoms when exposed to levels of PFAS:

  • Liver damage
  • Immune system damage
  • Birth defects
  • Low birth weight
  • Delayed development
  • Newborn deaths

Are there PFAS regulations for drinking water?

In April 2024, the EPA established enforceable levels for PFAS in drinking water. This new regulation includes a maximum contamination level (MCL) of 4 ppt (parts per trillion) for PFOA and PFOS. Water treatment plants will be given time to come up with treatment plans for removing PFAS, install any necessary treatment technology, and test the effectiveness of the new methods. Previously, states like California and New York had imposed regulations of their own. Multiple states have also phased out the use of some PFAS chemicals in everyday products.

In addition to the new regulations set in April 2024, the EPA also introduced new methods for measuring PFAS in the environment, guidelines for disposing of PFAS, rules for reporting the use of these chemicals used in manufactured products, and more procedures and guidelines.

How can I test my water for PFAS?

If your home uses water treated by a municipal plant, you can request a water quality report from your local water company. If your home uses well water or you wish to test your water for PFAS yourself, you can send in water samples to your nearest laboratory for analysis. Home water tests will not be able to detect PFAS, so you must utilize a lab test if you wish to know your water’s PFAS levels.

Learn more: How to read your water quality report | Lab water tests vs at-home test kits

What can you do about PFAS?

While exposure to PFAS is currently unavoidable, you can limit your exposure by not using products that are manufactured with PFAS chemicals and filtering your drinking water. By limiting your intake of PFAS, you can mitigate the potential side effects that you may experience from breathing, eating, or drinking these chemicals.

Avoiding PFAS products

You can limit your exposure to PFAS by not using certain items in or around your home. Avoid the following items if you wish to reduce your PFAS intake:

  • Non-stick cookware. Non-stick cookware is the most common household item that contains PFAS. While convenient, these pans contain PFAS in their coatings, leaching PFAS chemicals into your food and releasing them into the air. In fact, the release of PFAS chemicals into the air by non-stick cookware has been known to kill pet birds. If possible, the best course of action is to replace your non-stick cookware. If this is not possible, avoid cooking non-stick cookware at temperatures over 400°F and do not use metallic objects to cook or clean your pans.
  • Treated carpet. Carpet that is treated to be stain resistant is coated in a substance containing PFAS chemicals. While you may struggle to find alternatives, you can limit your exposure to PFAS by using untreated carpet or avoiding carpet altogether.
  • Some dental floss. Certain brands of dental floss contain PFAS in the floss’s coating. If you are unsure about the safety of the floss you use, research the ingredients in your preferred brand.
  • Coated clothing. Clothing items labeled as “water-resistant” or “stain-resistant” often contain some levels of PFAS in their coating.
  • Takeout containers. “To-go” containers you receive from restaurants often contain PFAS chemicals in their coating. Instead of using these containers, you may opt to bring containers from home.

scratched non-stick pan

Treating your water

Because residential water supplies contain PFAS and the new PFAS regulations will not take effect for a couple years as of 2024, you may wish to treat your drinking water at home to reduce the levels of these chemicals that you consume. There are currently many available options to consumers for reducing PFAS levels in their home’s water, and many more options will become available as manufacturers cater to the demand surrounding PFAS removal. Read below to learn about the best water filters for removing PFAS from drinking water.

What is the best water filter for PFAS?

Several types of water treatment systems can reduce the levels of PFAS in water. Note that not all of a specific type of water filter or other treatment method can remove PFAS, so you will need to check individual systems to see if they are certified for PFAS removal. The best water treatment methods for removing PFAS are reverse osmosis systems, granular activated carbon filters, ion exchange systems, and water distillers.

Learn more: How to remove PFAS from water

Reverse osmosis

Reverse osmosis (RO) systems utilize sediment filtration, activated carbon filtration, and a reverse osmosis membrane to remove a majority of contaminants from water. According to the EPA, high-pressure membranes like reverse osmosis are highly effective at removing PFAS because of their combination of activated carbon filtration and the RO membrane. The membrane works by forcing water through at a high pressure, leaving contaminants behind to be discharged as wastewater. The main problem with using RO to remove PFAS is that the PFAS reenters the water supply when it flows down your drain line. The activated carbon filter works to adsorb some PFAS before it is sent to the drain as waste water, but a percentage of PFAS is still sent back into the water supply.

Learn more: What is a reverse osmosis system?

Pros of reverse osmosis

  • Removes a large percentage of contaminants
  • Provides high-quality water for both drinking and cooking
  • Highly effective at removing PFAS

Cons of reverse osmosis

  • Not as fast as activated carbon or ion exchange
  • Sends some PFAS back into the water supply

Granular activated carbon (GAC)

Activated carbon filters are one of the most common types of water filter used in homes. As a result, it is the most studied type of water filter for PFAS removal according to the EPA. Activated carbon filters use the process of adsorption to accumulate contaminants as water flows through the filter. The porous, large surface area of granular activated carbon makes it excellent at trapping a large number of contaminants. These filters are most often used to remove organic compounds and improve the taste of tap water, but they can be effective at removing PFAS chemicals as well. GAC filters are at their best when particulates have already been removed from water, so utilizing a sediment filter before the carbon filter will help remove a larger percentage of PFAS. GAC filters are more effective at removing long-chain PFAS chemicals (such as PFOA and PFOS) than short-chain ones. Note that activated carbon filters are not as effective as RO systems at removing PFAS, but they can remove a moderate percentage of these chemicals from water. Some types of carbon filters may not be certified to reduce levels of PFAS, so ensure you check the specifications of your filter if PFAS removal is important to you.

Learn more: Activated carbon filters 101

Pros of granular activated carbon

  • Less expensive than other PFAS removal methods
  • Available in many configurations

Cons of granular activated carbon

  • Not as effective for PFAS removal
  • Not all types can remove PFAS

Ion exchange

Ion exchange systems use either a positively or negatively charged bed of resin beads to attract contaminants of the opposite charge. Positively charged anion exchange resin can be very effective at removing the negatively charged ions of PFAS. The effectiveness of this resin at removing PFAS can fluctuate depending on the state of the resin, so it is not as consistently effective at removing PFAS from water as reverse osmosis. Unlike GAC filters, ion exchange systems are effective at removing both long- and short-chain PFAS chemicals. However, ion exchange systems are typically more expensive than their GAC counterparts.

Learn more: What is deionized water?

Pros of ion exchange

  • Effective at removing long-chain and short-chain PFAS
  • Shorter bed contact time needed than GAC
  • Higher capacity than GAC

Cons of ion exchange

  • More expensive than GAC
  • Effectiveness at removing PFAS fluctuates

Water distillers

Water distillers are the simplest type of water treatment that can remove PFAS. Distillers purify water like how it is purified naturally in the environment. First, the water is heated in a boiling chamber, turning it into vapor. This vapor then rises to the ceiling of the distiller, where it cools down and reverts into a liquid. Finally, this liquid collects on the other side of the unit in the form of purified water. Practically all contaminants, including PFAS, are left in the boiling chamber. While water distillers are excellent at creating safe, clean water, they do so very slowly and use more energy than other systems. For an average countertop water distiller, the treatment time sits at around 4 hours for every gallon of water treated.

Learn more: What is distilled water and is it safe to drink?

Pros of water distillers

  • Simple to install
  • Easy to use
  • Remove practically all contaminants

Cons of water distillers

  • Treat water slowly
  • Can only be practically used for drinking water
  • Use more energy than other treatment methods


If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

No comments yet.
Leave a comment