Watertechadvice.com is supported by readers. If you purchase through referral links on our site, we make a commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more.

What is PFAS in Drinking Water?

By: David Trinh
Last Updated:
pfas

Perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short, are substances you are regularly exposed to but are most likely unaware of their presence. You probably ingest many kinds of PFAS by drinking it in your water or eating food containing the chemical.

Currently, PFAS chemicals are not fully regulated by the EPA, the organization which creates the national primary drinking water regulations. Moreover, PFAS are a severe problem in groundwater sources.

We’ve provided you with a simplified guide design to make the complexity of PFAS chemicals and their role in drinking water as simple as possible.

Furthermore, this article outlines the health risks that PFAS pose and discusses how you can remove them from your water.

What Are PFAS, PFOS, and PFOA Exactly?

PFAS is the larger category of chemicals that are detrimental to the environment. Within this larger category of chemicals are smaller sections of chemicals that pose separate threats.

Here is a list of the substances and where you can find them:

Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

PFAS is the name given to classify over 4,000 individuals chemicals containing strong carbon-fluorine bonds. These chemicals have been used in industrial technologies and food for close to 100 years.

PFAS are man-made chemicals produced in consumer goods such as cookware products, stain repellents, and food packaging. Companies across the United States manufacture these products regularly. Airports, certain military bases, and factories are the most typical havens for polyfluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS and their presence are not limited to packaging and materials, they also get released into the atmosphere as a byproduct of commercial production.

As time passes, these chemicals are left to accumulate in the air, soil, dust, and on the surface of our local water sources. This build up includes our drinking water.

Furthermore, PFAS can remain in the environment for a long period, which increases the chances of public exposure.

Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) happens to be one of the most harmful substances from the family of PFAS chemicals.

Upon its discovery, PFOA got used in the production process for a broad range of materials and consumer products.

These products and materials included but are limited to the following: paints, food packaging, carpets, water-resistant clothing, cleaning products, paper, and stain repellents.

However, as recent as decades ago, the detrimental health effects caused by PFOAs have been discovered. Moreover, acid-based chemicals have gone on to be banned globally, and they’re now strictly regulated in a concerted effort to reduce levels of exposure.

PFOA is no longer being used to manufacture products; however, it’s prevalent enough to pollute the environment for years to come by contaminating our soil, air, and our precious bodies of water.

Perfluorooctanesulfonic Acid (PFOS)

Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, also known as PFOS, became the second PFAS chemical restricted in early 2000.

Thanks to the EPA, who saw to it that PFOS got phased out. PFOS has proven useful in a litany of products mainly due to its ability to repel oil, water, and stains.

Not only this, this substance got used on a large scale in industrial manufacturing facilities. That includes the process of making carpets, nonstick cookware, and food packaging. Released during the run-of-the-mill industrial processes, PFOS is a robust and highly enduring toxic substance.

Most PFOS in reputable facilities is banned. That was a decision reached by the EPA that dealt with the chemical’s toxic bioaccumulation properties. Even though it is banned, the chemical’s robust qualities allow it to remain in the environment for a very long period earning its name as a “forever chemical.”

Common areas affected by PFOS are water sources and the air. The pollution occurs during the disposal of consumer products which over time pollutes the environment.

Potential Health Risks Associated with Forever Chemicals

PFAS chemicals, when found in drinking water sources, can affect your health negatively in a plethora of ways.

However, the concern doesn’t stop there. If left untreated, even when found in low levels, PFAS can remain for a long period.

Perhaps even more alarming is that our bodies are incapable of expelling these harmful chemicals, which allows them to build to dangerous levels over time if left unchecked.

All of the potential health risks having to do with being exposed to PFAS chemical include the following:

Immune System Effects

Studies administered on both humans and animals have produced convincing evidence that PFAS exposure to humans and animals may very well negatively impact their immune systems, respectively. Furthermore, either by drinking water or eating food, consuming PFAS can potentially reduce your body’s antibody response to disease-preventing vaccines.

In other words, PFAS may limit our chances of being immune to infectious diseases via a vaccine. PFAS may even put you at more risk for contracting Covid-19, as some studies suggest. Although, more research is needed to confirm these potential findings.

Cancer

New animal studies have uncovered the possibility of PFAS linkage to cancer. Furthermore, exposure to even low levels of PFAS in drinking water could cause tumors to develop. This very same research suggests that PFAS exposure is carcinogenic to the human body. If exposed to high levels of PFAS contamination, you are at risk for developing liver cancer, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and various other chronic conditions.

Low Birth Weight of Infants

PFAS in high concentration negatively impacts the birth rate and may be linked to preterm birth. One study found that parents exposed to high levels of PFAS found in their blood saw that the growth rate of their children was affected during the first two years of their life. PFAS can also negatively impact the chances of a woman getting pregnant.

Thyroid Hormone Disruption

Research has discovered that PFOS and PFOA when found in the blood, could potentially disrupt the endocrine function, and may even impair the thyroid. The importance of thyroid hormones is crucial.

They are necessary for behavior and cognitive functions, and brain development in children. Numerous studies suggest that these chemicals may harm thyroid cells. Hauntingly, the effects of PFAS on natural hormone regulation and production may last into adulthood.

Increased Cholesterol

Studies by the CDC suggest that the effects of PFAS in people across the US are linked to increased levels of cholesterol. More research is needed to confirm this theory.

How Do PFAS Chemicals Get Into Drinking Water?

While there are numerous ways to get endangered by PFAS, contamination is most commonly found in water.

If you reside in a town where PFOS and PFAS have multiplied in your supply of drinking water, it’s probably a local issue. Additionally, there’s likely a very specific cause as to why it’s now contaminated.

For example, living close to a factory may be problematic if they produce PFAS or products like food packaging. You have a higher risk of contaminated water because the PFAS gets pumped into the atmosphere or dumped out. The result is easy access to groundwater sources.

Even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dictates that water must be thoroughly treated, there have still been issues with drinking water. In 2016, it was discovered that a minimum of six million U.S. citizens were consuming water that had a higher level of PFAS than what is allowed.

How Can I Tell if My Drinking Water is Contaminated?

So, what exactly is PFAS contamination?

Well, you wouldn’t be able to tell that your water was contaminated from the taste because every form of PFOS and PFOA has no taste or form. They’re also microscopic, so you can’t see them either.

You’d have to test the water for chemicals to get a definitive answer about your drinking water.

As soon as you’re aware of the level of PFOS and PFOA chemicals present, choose a suitable water treatment to remove them.

Another option is to use a search engine like Google to find local laboratories that are state-certified.

They will test your water and let you know if the water you are drinking is unsafe.

You will send them a small sample of the water in a sealed container. After they have tested your water, they will send you a report that details all pertinent information. The report will include the chemical levels in parts per trillion or PPT.

You can have your water tested for specific chemicals, but the best course of action will always be to test for both PFAS and PFOA.

If you have a well, you should also get that water tested for other harmful pollutants like sulfur, bacteria, and lead.

It’s always smart to conduct professional lab testing. There are tons of water testing kits that you see online claiming to accurately test for various PFAS and while these kits may be reliable to an extent, they aren’t firmly backed by science. In this case, you won’t know the true quality of your water, only whether it has PFAS in it.

What is the Federal Limit for PFAS in Drinking Water?

The EPA has declared that PFOS and PFOA cannot be higher than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in public (city) water supplies.

The agency regularly updates the public with general changes and information about the drinking water regulations enforced. For more information on their policies and news within the water industry, visit their website.

On another note, it’s interesting to see that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) isn’t in agreement with these statutes. This organization advocates for levels that are much lower than the standard set by the EPA. According to the EWG, if any water sample hailing from a public water system has greater than one pot, it can have adverse side effects on our bodies.

Some states have decided to go against the EPA’s margins and enforce lower limits to reduce the effects of PFAS in drinking water. These government bodies have developed levels that they feel most comfortable allowing their residents to consume. Find out your state’s max level of PFAS for safety by visiting the state (Department of Health) website for more information.

What Should I Do If My Water is Contaminated With PFAS?

Should testing reveal that you have high levels of PFOS and PFOA in your water, don’t wait to get it treated as soon as possible.

Go to your local market and purchase an adequate supply of bottled drinking water until you can find the right home water filter. This eliminates any longer silly harmful effects you can experience. If you have any underlying health issues that put you at greater risk, contact your primary care physician right away.

Take note that even lower levels of the chemicals in your water can still produce unwanted effects.

Whichever side of the fence you find yourself on, you have to be aware that there are groups out there that contest the recommended level of PFAS that’s safe to drink. If you do agree with the EWG, remember that we would be drinking levels of water with chemicals much higher than they believe is safe.

A Few Viable Filter Options to Use

Reverse osmosis (RO) technology is probably the most valid form of water purification. There are specific filtration measures that must be taken by these systems.

The system has to use special filters such as activated carbon and pre-sediment. PFAS chemicals are indeed difficult to remove. Nonetheless, a system using reverse osmosis was effective and efficient enough to filter out over 99% of all the dissolved solids in the water supply.

You can also use a carbon filter to try to reduce the PFAS concentration in your water supply.

They are much cheaper than the aforementioned technology, though may not be as effective. Carbon filters treat lead and chlorine in the water, but not necessarily PFAS, PFOA, or PFOS so make sure to check out the manufacturer claims to see if the filter removes PFAS.

Therefore, compared to the performance of reverse osmosis filtration with membranes to boost the results, you might opt for the RO system.

If you’re curious to know whether the filters or RO system can rid your water of PFAS, look for certification (NSF 53).

This label will ensure that the product has been thoroughly tested for efficacy and was found to be fit to remove harmful or potentially harmful chemicals in the water. The product will also have undergone testing by a third-party organization that is recognized globally if it has this label.

It’s important to remember that you have to move quickly once you realize that your PFAS levels are too high. Over time, PFAS can accumulate in your blood and aggravate other health conditions as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some commonly asked questions.

How Can I Find Out More About PFAS In My Water?

You can easily get more information about your water by contacting the state department of health or your city’s water treatment plant. Check to see if there’s a local department that will conduct the testing for you.

Additionally, some towns have online resources that will update them on the condition of the drinking water. If all else fails, call your state or local representative, or send them an email detailing your concerns. 

How Can I Protect My Family From PFAS?

You must move quickly to make sure that your family isn’t drinking contaminated water. This is especially the case if you have small children. If you’re aware that the water has higher levels of PFAS than is recommended, stop using or drinking the water immediately. Develop a plan to get your water tested and figure out which water filter is best for your home’s needs.

Photo of author
AUTHOR
David Trinh
David is an expert in all things plumbing, heating, cooling, and water treatment. He got his start in the plumbing business working on fixing all types of home improvement issues including water leaks, broken toilets, appliance installation, and more. Over time, he learned a ton about installing and choosing the correct water treatment products for homeowners. He nows spends part of his time servicing local clients and part of his time educating consumers about water treatment and other household appliances.