If you’ve been doom-scrolling recently, you may have heard of PFAS. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a warning regarding these “forever” chemicals as they pose serious health risks, even at extremely low levels.
What does that mean for your family and your drinking water?
We reached out to Eric Yeggy, Technical Affairs Director for the Water Quality Association. Eric spent more than 20 years in the environmental testing industry analyzing drinking water, ground water, and soil, and shared with us information you need to know about PFAS chemicals and your drinking water.
What are PFAS chemicals?
PFAS, pronounced PEA-fass, are a class of chemicals known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They are manmade chemicals, meaning they don’t occur naturally, and they are very resilient in the environment.
“No one really knows how many of these chemicals are in use,” says Eric. “The estimates I have heard range from anywhere from 4,000 to upwards of 10,000 different PFAS chemicals in use.”
PFAS are commonly found in the following items:
- Non-stick coatings.
- Firefighting foams.
- Food packaging.
- And many others!
Companies voluntarily phased the most common PFAS chemicals – PFOS and PFOA – from the United States market in 2015. That’s why your nonstick frying pans may now read “PFOS-free” or “PFOA-free.”
Studies have linked PFOA and PFOS to serious health effects, such as reproductive problems; damage to the liver, the kidneys, the thyroid, and the immune system; elevated cholesterol; cancers; and developmental issues with babies, including low birth weight.
“Unfortunately, we know the least about the PFAS chemicals the industry switched to around 2015,” says Eric. “They might be less dangerous. They might be more dangerous. We just don’t know yet.”
Why are PFAS called forever chemicals?
“Once you’re exposed, they remain in your body,” says Eric. “Nothing in nature can destroy them once they enter the environment.”
A long carbon chain saturated with fluorine atoms make up PFAS chemicals and at the end is a functional group.
“That carbon–fluorine bond is one of the strongest bonds in chemistry,” says Eric. “It’s very difficult to destroy.”
Do you need to worry about PFAS in your drinking water?
There’s no way to know how many people have PFAS in their drinking water since there hasn’t been extensive testing. However, the Environmental Working Group estimates that as many as 200 million Americans may have drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
Explains Eric, “PFAS have been found in water supplies in every state, and I suspect we’ve only started to scratch the surface.”
Certain laboratories may be able to test upwards of 50 different PFAS chemicals, but as mentioned earlier, there are thousands of these chemicals in use.
“Until we know what they all are, which is information that is currently tightly guarded as ‘trade secrets,’ the laboratories will not be able to develop test methods to look for them,” says Eric.
PFAS bioaccumulate in the food chain and in our bodies, and as mentioned earlier, once these chemicals enter our bodies, they remain there. Scientists have conducted blood studies to see the reach of PFAS chemicals and uncovered disturbing results.
“We know that every American has been exposed to PFAS,” says Eric. “These chemicals are in our blood. You and I have been bioaccumulating PFAS in our bodies since birth.”
How can you tell if you have PFAS in your drinking water?
There’s no way to know if water has PFAS without testing as there is no funny smell or color change, and usually, the concentration of PFAS is very small.
“We’re talking about levels that are parts per trillion,” says Eric. “Typically, in the drinking water world, we are looking for contaminants that are in the parts per million range or the parts per billion range, so we’re talking about very small amounts that are dangerous.”
In-home test kits do not capture PFAS, and not all certified drinking water laboratories may be able to test for PFAS.
“It’s a difficult test,” says Eric. “Of those that are capable of and certified for PFAS testing, they may each have a different list of PFAS chemicals that they’re testing for.”
If you’re receiving water from the municipal supply, it’s always a good idea to check the annual water quality report for many different reasons. While the Safe Drinking Water Act does not regulate PFAS chemicals, your municipality may be testing for a select few of them. Homeowners on private wells should contact their county and state public health departments.
“Any of these agencies might have helpful information about PFAS contamination in your area,” says Eric.
How can you remove PFAS from drinking water?
Bottled water may also be a short-term solution.
“A lot of people say that bottled water is just simply tap water that’s repackaged, but in reality, bottled water, even if they are using a source that is tap water, has been put through an entire treatment train,” Eric says.
Unlike other pollutants, boiling water will not help to rid water of PFAS.
“Boiling the water is for microbial contaminants,” says Eric, “so it will not help with PFAS at all.”
Want to learn more about your drinking water? The WQA offers the free booklet Water Treatment for Dummies, which answers questions about home water treatments, products, and professionals in easy-to-understand terms!
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