What are PFAS and is it Safe to Have Them in My Water?
by Peter Lombardi
Quality Specialist, Consultant
> 3 min read
Water is essential for human life and it is recommended that people consume at least half a gallon each day to perform optimally. Because water is so important for a healthy lifestyle, it's natural to scrutinize what minerals, chemicals, and organisms are present in your water supply.
Many consumers are aware high levels of well-known materials such as lead, iron, and aluminum pose a risk to human health. However, PFAS are a lesser-known contaminant that is present in many water supplies. Research is ongoing into the potential adverse effects of these chemicals, and it’s essential to learn more about how they could affect your health if present in your drinking water supply.
HERE ARE OTHER QUESTIONS THAT YOU MIGHT HAVE ABOUT WATER:
What are PFAS?
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemicals that include PFOA, GenX, PFOS, and many other substances. These substances have many vital applications, from plastic packaging to non-stick coatings, and it is likely you come into contact with PFAS every day.
These chemicals were developed in the 1930s and are prevalent across the globe, including in the United States. Their versatility means PFAS are present in many common materials such as:
- Food packaging materials
- Household cleaning products and non-stick materials
- Polishes, waxes, paints
- Fire extinguisher foams
- Stain- and water-resistant fabrics
Because of the widespread use of PFAS in a range of products, it is almost impossible not to come into regular contact with the chemicals. PFAS can become airborne during manufacturing processes or enter the environment during the degradation of materials that utilize these chemicals. PFAS deterioration can pollute the soil and groundwater and any living organisms living in PFAS-contaminated habitats. Unfortunately, this means that many municipal water supplies can become contaminated with PFAS, which can seriously impact human health.
How Do PFAS Enter the Public Water Supply
Recent research suggests the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has considerably underestimated the amount of PFAS present in the public water supply. While not definitive, these results are concerning. The EPA is responsible for ensuring water suppliers provide water that is safe for domestic use.
Although the EPA does not currently issue legally enforceable standards for the amount of PFAS in the water supply, they have recently issued preliminary determinations to regulate PFOA and PFOS. To perform this action, they must have accurate readings of the level of chemicals in public water supplies throughout the US.
If the levels of minerals, organisms, and chemicals, such as PFAS, are too high, this could have severe adverse effects on public health. For consumers to understand how they can reduce the levels of PFAS in their household water supply, it's essential to know how the chemicals gain access.
PFAS don’t naturally break down regardless of environmental conditions. These substances remain present in soil and water supplies indefinitely, making it vital producers protect water sources when disposing of their products.
One of the routes for PFAS to enter the public water supply is through landfills. As materials degrade, the PFAS remain leaching into the groundwater due to their high solubility. Groundwater carries the chemicals to water sources such as rivers and lakes, introducing them to an otherwise clean water supply.
Manufacturing and production plants can install protective barriers that reduce the risk of contaminants entering identifiable nearby water sources. However, if the chemicals continue to travel to water supplies that are further afield, it is difficult to block every route.
PFAS are present in animals, fruits, and vegetation. When these organisms die and decay, they can leak PFAS into water sources. Because of living organisms’ movement and their prevalence throughout the natural environment, it is impossible to prevent PFAS from entering the water supply at this stage.
Improper Waste Disposal
Dumping waste in hazardous landfills, using illegal dumping sites, and littering instead of using trash receptacles, can add PFAS to a water source.
"As materials degrade, the PFAS remain leaching into the groundwater due to their high solubility."
Is it Safe to Have PFAS in Your Water Supply?
The EPA is the first line of defense in protecting your domestic water source. Although they have not issued regulations regarding PFAS in the past, their recent announcement suggests they have concerns about PFAS’ effect on human health.
The EPA’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR) apply when there is a potential health risk. If the organization includes PFAS in these regulations, it will likely set a maximum safe domestic water supply level. However, many people may still wonder if there are unsafe levels in the current water supply?
Scientists are still evaluating the effects of PFAS on human health. However, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states various studies suggest humans should be wary before consuming high levels of PFAS. While we wait for scientifically-backed evidence, several studies indicate these chemicals could:
- Increase cholesterol levels
- Result in liver enzyme changes
- Increase the risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women
- Lead to decreases in infant birth weights
- Decrease vaccine response in children
- Increase the risk of developing kidney or testicular cancer
It is important to remember these studies do not provide conclusive scientific proof. However, the findings are concerning and warrant further investigation.
How Can I Reduce Levels of PFAS in My Water?
The first step you can take is to ask a contractor to inspect your water supply and supply a report on which chemicals are present. It may be the levels are negligible, so you might not be concerned about drinking from your faucet. However, if you still worry about PFAS in your water supply, the most effective solution is to purchase a high-quality water filter.
Water filters remove harmful contaminants from your water supply. Some many minerals and chemicals can harm human health, including PFAS. Several different water filtration systems are available; however, the best option is a reverse osmosis purification system, which removes up to 95% of PFAS and its derivatives.
The Bottom Line
Reverse osmosis water filtration systems, two-stage filters, and activated carbon filters effectively remove most PFAS, providing you with a cleaner drinking supply. It’s a good idea to test your water chemical levels again after installing your new water filter to ensure you are satisfied with the water quality.
About the Author
Peter is a Los Angeles based water quality specialist, and works as a surveyor for businesses and communities looking to be informed and active about the quality of their water. He shares his expertise with 64 oz. to ensure everything is accurate, and to prevent the spread of misinformation about water contaminants.