A recent study showed that the popular industrial chemical Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) exceeded the federally acceptable level in drinking water supply for over 6 million people in the United States.
While PFAS, PFOA, and GenX seemed like great ideas at the time, we will be suffering the negative consequences for years to come. This has left many wondering what exactly is PFAS in drinking water.
What Are PFAS, PFOA, And PFOS?
Commonly referred to as “forever chemicals”, PFAS is a group of over 4,500 manmade chemicals. Because PFAS, PFOA, and PFOS are the most commonly produced, they are the most discussed.
Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are human-created and are resistant to water, oil, grease, and heat. Composed of carbon, fluorine, and other elements, they will persist in the atmosphere and even in people’s bodies. This means they are difficult to decompose, and their accumulation grows with time.
While the use of these substances has been phased out in the United States, over 3,000 PFAS chemicals still exist in our environment.
Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
Perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly referred to as PFOA, is a subset of the larger group of PFAS chemicals. PFOA is considered a fluorinated organic chemical and because of its stable molecular structure can take over 1,000 years to degrade.
Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS)
Perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, is another commonly produced PFAS chemical. They are grease and water resistance synthetic compounds that are challenging to break down in the human body and the environment. And although the United States and Canada have banned the use of PFOS, they can still be found in imported goods
How Does PFAS Get Into Water?
PFAS had been commonly used in consumer and industrial products since the mid-20th century. These chemicals can enter our drinking water supply from sources like:
- Nonstick cooking pans
- Stain-resistant furniture and carpet
- wastewater treatment plants
- Flame resistance foams
They have also been found in lakes and rivers. More surprisingly, they are also present in consumer products including food packaging. They can even be found in humans and animals too. In a CDC study starting in 1999, scientists measured at least 12 blood serums in different participants and found the presence of these “forever chemicals” in almost all of the people tested.
What Are The Health Effects Of PFAS Exposure?
Two of the most examined PFAS chemicals are Perfluorooctane Sulfonic Acid (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). In fact, the EPA recently reduced its health advisory levels to only 70 parts per trillion because negative health effects can occur at levels much lower than previously understood.
Multiple studies have demonstrated the adverse effects of PFAS on the human body. Research suggests that high levels of PFAS exposure can lead to:
- Increased cholesterol
- Liver enzyme changes
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of kidney cancer
Similarly, animal studies have led to the discovery that exposure to PFOA and high levels of PFAS can cause reproductive and developmental harm, and liver, kidney, and immunological damage.
PFAS also negatively impacts our environment. These manmade chemicals can be found in our soil, water, and air. As a result, they have entered our water supplies with spurred the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a health advisory for PFOA and PFOS.
Do You Have PFAS In Your Drinking Water?
You’re probably wondering, “how exactly do I know if I have PFAS in my drinking water?” Fortunately, knowing if you have PFAS present in your drinking water can be done in a few easy ways.
Water Quality Database Search
If you have a city or municipal water supply, the EPA requires the utility to provide annual water quality test results. You can simply go to the EPA’s Consumer Confidence Report database and search for your local water system. Here you will see the concentration levels of various contaminants, including PFAS if they are present.
There are also other localized databases to search for your local water quality like the EWG database. This will provide test results for local water quality based on zip code and recommended concentration levels of contaminants. Some states like Minnesota are creating interactive maps to show PFAS specific test results to evaluate health concerns.
Laboratory Water Testing
The most precise method to know if you have PFAS in your drinking water is to conduct laboratory water. While the above-mentioned databases are quick and free, they don’t account for any number of variables that can affect the water directly in your home’s taps. We recommend using laboratories that are certified to test for PFAS with EPA Method 537. Lab tests can also help to uncover other difficult to identify water contamination issues so you have an accurate wholistic picture of your home’s water.
How To Remove PFAS From Drinking Water
There are water treatment technologies that have been tested and found to be successful in removing these chemicals from drinking water in your home. These include activated carbon filters, reverse osmosis filters (RO), and anion exchange resin treatment.
Reverse osmosis uses a semipermeable membrane with pores that are only .0001 micron in size. Water is forced through the membrane under high pressure, which then separates the harmful contaminants and allows only pure H2O molecules to pass. Reverse osmosis is highly effective at treating PFAS and can remove over 90% of it from your drinking water.
Activated carbon traps and accumulates contaminants in its porous structure as water passes through. Studies have shown granular activated carbon filtration options to be effective at treating PFAS in drinking water. Because of the variability in carbon filter options, it is critical to use a quality filter that meets ANSI/NSF Standard 53 for the removal of a broad range of contaminants.
Ion exchange resin acts like a magnet to attract and retain harmful drinking water contaminants. The ion exchange process is an effective way to treat PFAS, especially short-chain PFAS molecules that are not absorbed by carbon filters.
To reduce PFOAS in your water, it is paramount that you look for water filters that are tested and certified to reduce PFAS and other contaminants in your drinking water. When looking for a home water treatment for PFAS, prioritize systems that carry the NSF/ANSI 58 or NSF/ANSI 53 certifications.
How To Limit Exposure To PFAS
Despite being long phased out in North America, forever chemicals will continue to be a threat to human health. We are only just beginning to understand the long-term implications of these chemicals. Here are some easy tips to limit your exposure as much as possible:
- Test your water for the presence of these types of contaminants and choose the right water filtration system. Changing your water filters regularly is essential for the filters to function effectively.
- Avoid common household goods that can be problematic like nonstick pans, coated packaging, and pesticides. This is especially true for important products from countries with lax standards on forever chemical usage.
- Avoid stain-resistant coatings on carpets and furniture. Things like Scotchguard or other coatings containing PFAS are not worth the potential risks.
- Stay aware of guidelines for eating foods like fish and shellfish. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will issue consumption advisories for PFAS if the concentration levels are too high. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also recommends eating a varied, well-balanced diet to reduce risks.
As the name suggests, forever chemicals will be impacting our society for years to come. Ultimately, you have the final say in the water filtration system you choose; understanding what is present in your water and the potential effect it could have on you and your family is just as critical now as it ever was.