PFOS & PFOA: The Dangers of ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water
If you’ve been following the news a lot lately, chances are you’ve seen or heard the acronym ‘PFAS.’ Perhaps instead of keeping up with the news, you fully immerse yourself in the latest drama-filled movies – and extra buttery popcorn. In the latter case, you’ve most likely watched (or at least heard about) the 2019 thriller film Dark Waters.
The film follows Mark Ruffalo as he plays Rob Bilott, the attorney responsible for the decades-long pollution case involving the American chemical company DuPont. The company operated a site in Parkersburg, West Virginia that is more than 35 times the size of the Pentagon.
As the movie describes, DuPont had been dumping a highly toxic chemical compound known as PFOA (which the company refers to as C8) into several municipal water systems around the town since 1951. The chemical leached into public drinking water and sickened thousands of people, some of who were DuPont employees who worked with the compound – including pregnant employees. Somehow, the company managed to keep it quiet for years.
Decades later, DuPont’s secret wrongdoings came to light and followed with consequences. The company ended up paying the largest fine in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – $16.5 million – and rightly so. They also had to pay an additional $671 million in settlements to the 3,535 West Virginians who filed personal injury lawsuits related to chemical exposure.
While the movie exposes all of the damage done by DuPont (and similar companies that produce PFAS chemicals), it only reveals a small portion of the acid’s long-term effects on our bodies and the environment.
In this article, we’ll dive deep into all the crucial details about PFAS, mainly what they are, their potentially toxic health effects for humans and the environment, and what you can do to keep them out of your drinking water.
What are PFAS exactly?
PFAS, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a large family of almost 5,000 different types of chemical compounds, all of which are human-made and contain linked chains of carbon and fluorine.
The bond between carbon and fluorine atoms is quite strong, which means that PFAS chemicals don’t break down quickly. They can stick around in the environment and build up in our bodies for decades or even centuries. Because of this unique chemical property, some people call PFAS “forever chemicals.”
Where can PFAS be found?
PFAS chemicals originated in the 1930s. During that time, scientists discovered that the substances had some useful qualities because they repel oil, water, and grease, resist temperature extremes, and reduce friction. Soon after, companies started using PFAS to manufacture a variety of consumer products, including stain-proof rugs, paper food packaging (like microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes), fast-food wrappers, some types of dental floss, non-stick cookware, and more. If a product is waterproof or stain-repellent, like stuff that has Gore-Tex, Teflon, or Scotchguard, there’s a good chance that it contains some kind of PFAS.
Now, the two PFAS chemicals that you’re most likely to hear about are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). Due to strict regulatory standards, U.S. manufacturers voluntarily cut back on using them since the early 2000s. But because the chemicals were manufactured here for decades, they remain widespread in the environment. Besides, manufacturers from other countries still produce PFAS chemicals and can export products made with them into the U.S.
Furthermore, a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that there are high amounts of PFAS in water, even much more than the EPA previously reported. Scientists from the EWG believe that some PFAS chemicals are likely present in all the major water supplies in the U.S. Shockingly, the tests also found PFAS chemicals that are not commonly tested for in drinking water.
The bottom line is that PFAS chemicals still exist in some of the everyday products we buy, as well as in our precious drinking water. Frankly, they’re likely already in our blood, our family’s blood, and even that of our children.
What are the health risks of PFAS chemicals?
Since PFAS chemicals have been used in many consumer products for decades, there’s no doubt that many people have been exposed to them. Chances are the chemicals enter our bodies through the food we eat, like microwave popcorn, food in takeout containers, the fish from contaminated water, or even the water we drink. Scientists also found that people can inhale PFAS-contaminated air or dust, while other studies showed that a small amount of PFAS could be absorbed through the skin.
Exposure to some PFAS chemicals can lead to serious health issues in humans, especially when levels of the chemicals creep above one part per trillion. Unless you are a robot, PFAS may lead to problems like thyroid disease, damage to the liver and kidneys, elevated cholesterol, and effects on fertility and low birth weight. Now, think back to the pregnant Dupont employees who were exposed to PFAS in the workplace. See where we’re going with this?
The Dark Waters film features several stories from some people who were affected by DuPont’s Teflon, including DuPont employees, children, and adults in the surrounding community, as well as pets, livestock, and wildlife. One of those stories is about Sue Bailey, a former DuPont employee who gave birth to a son with severe deformities. Her son, William Bailey, aka Bucky, was born with half of a nose, one nostril, a jagged eyelid, and a keyhole pupil where his iris and retina were detached.
Research also suggests that exposure to PFAS chemicals might suppress the immune systems of young children, possibly making vaccines less effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also lists other toxic health effects, such as increasing your risk of certain cancers and interfering with your hormones.
Scientists aren’t entirely sure about the health effects of new PFAS compounds that are used instead of PFOS and PFAS, and the effects of low-level exposure. However, they’ve found that PFAS chemicals affect every major organ in the body. If that’s not scary, then we don’t know what is. But since companies started using fewer PFOS since the early part of 2000, scientists have seen a rapid and dramatic reduction of the chemical in both environmental samples and people’s blood.
How can PFAS affect our ecosystems?
PFAS do not occur naturally, but their presence in the environment is widespread. According to a PFAS fact sheet provided by the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council (ITRC), PFAS chemicals are also present in industrial sites, wastewater treatment plants, fire training/fire response sites, and landfills. Once the chemicals enter the environment, they can contaminate soil, water bodies, and various ecosystems.
Let’s discuss how PFAS at each of these locations can negatively impact the environment.
Industrial sites primarily consist of manufacturing facilities where PFAS-containing products are synthesized and made into products, or where PFAS are used as processing aids in production. At some manufacturing facilities, the chemicals may be used to add a resistive coating to finished products or used to make protective gear for employees and consumers.
These manufacturing facilities may release PFAS into the environment (whether knowingly or unknowingly) as they discharge wastewater that may contain small particles of plastics, molds, metals, paper, and leather and textile coating. These may also enter the environment through accidental releases, such as leaks and spills, stack emissions, and on- and off-site disposal of wastes.
The introduction of PFAS into the environment from industrial sites may contaminate soil and surface water, harming fish, and other aquatic life. It can also lead to short- or long-range air transport of PFAS, which can enter the bodies of humans and animals when inhaled.
Wastewater Treatment Plants
Municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) can create several pathways for PFAS to enter the environment, including air emissions, leakage or accidental releases from surface impoundments, disposal of biosolids, and other byproducts generated during the treatment process, as well as point source discharges of effluent.
Depending on the waste management and disposal practices, solid waste could contaminate groundwater, surface water, or both. PFAS may also be introduced to the environment when biosolids are added to the soil, potentially allowing the chemicals to enter surface water through runoff or infiltrate groundwater. The potential effects of PFAS on groundwater or surface water depend on the amount and composition of PFAS present in biosolids, infiltration rate, soil properties, and land application practices.
Fire Training/Fire Response Sites
For decades, the U.S. military, civilian airports, and other facilities have used aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs) to put out hydrocarbon fires. AFFFs are commercial surfactant solutions that can be accidentally released into the environment through railcars, storage tanks, and piping during delivery or transfer. Once that happens, AFFFs can pollute soil, surface water, and groundwater.
Landfills are also sources of PFAS because they are the final repositories for PFAS-contaminated industrial waste, waste from site mitigation, as well as PFAS-bearing consumer products like stain-resistant coatings. PFAS concentrations from AFFF-contaminated sites and WWTPs may leach into groundwater from landfills and pollute the water and harm inhabitants.
How do I know if there are PFAS in my drinking water?
1. Check EWG’s Tap Water Database
The EWG has a Tap Water Database that provides useful information about a particular city or state based on the ZIP code you enter. It displays the water utility’s details, such as its location, the estimated number of people served, the period for which the data is available, and the source (whether groundwater or surface water). Most importantly, the tool will tell you the total number of contaminants detected in the water supply and how many of them exceed EWG health guidelines. So, enter your ZIP code and see if there are any PFAS contaminants in your water supply.
2. Check your water quality report
You can contact your local water provider and request a copy of the latest water quality report, then scan through it to see if there have been any recent reports of PFAS in the water supply in your area.
3. Use a home PFAS water testing kit
The fastest and cheapest way to determine if your water contains PFAS is to test your water. There are numerous affordable water testing kits available online for purchase from many different merchants. Once you purchase a PFAS test kit, you can check your water for possible PFAS contamination in under 10 minutes.
Testing your water is especially important if you’ve noticed that your water tastes “off,” it is not clear, is has an unpleasant odor, or your water bills have increased unexpectedly. Besides, checking your water quality can help you take the right steps to purify your water before any possible contamination gets worse. Ultimately, you can provide safer, cleaner PFAS-free drinking water for your home and your loved ones.
4. Send a sample to a laboratory in your area
Alternatively, you can send a water sample from your tap to a local laboratory for more accurate and thorough testing. Some labs may send you the sample container in a cooler with an instructions guide. This method can be a bit costly, but it will tell you for sure whether or not your water contains PFAS and perhaps what specific PFAS are present.
How can I avoid exposure to PFAS?
There are no federal regulatory levels set for PFAS (although some states have established their standards and screen levels). That means you have to take matters into your own hands to protect your home and your family from these deadly chemicals.
Here are several ways to avoid exposure to PFAS in your home:
1. Avoid foods that come in contact with PFAS
Although it sounds difficult, especially if you’re an avid movie watcher, try to avoid eating microwave popcorn. Also, opt for fresh food in reusable containers when possible, instead of food packaging and takeout boxes. As for non-stick cookware, some experts say don’t use them at all, while others say it’s OK as long as you don’t use them on high heat and the coating isn’t scratching off.
2. Reduce your exposure to PFAS-containing household items
Some companies have started to phase PFAS chemicals out of some of their products, so you can look for items that are marked ‘PFAS-free.’ That means you can skip stain-resistant carpets and upholstery, and use uncoated floss or those with the least amount of coating with natural wax.
3. Install a whole-house water filtration system that uses activated carbon or reverse osmosis
After determining if your water contains PFAS, you can decide to purchase and install a premium whole-house water filtration system. Whole-house water filters can safely eliminate contaminants like PFAS, heavy metals, bacteria, pesticides, herbicides, and many others from your drinking water.
If you decide to purchase a whole-house filter, it’s best to go with a top-tier filter like the Springwell CF1 Whole-House Water Filtration System. This system is robust and can significantly reduce harmful contaminants in your water, such as chlorine, chloramine, PFOA, PFOS, pesticides, herbicides, haloacetic acids, and many more.
Moreover, the Springwell system uses ActivFlo technology to filter your water through four critical stages (including an activated carbon filtration stage), removing up to 99% of contaminants during the entire process. It primarily achieves this by allowing enough contact time between each step of the filtration process and the specific contaminants. That way, you can enjoy healthier and safer drinking water with a system that gives you multiple lines of defense against even the most dangerous pollutants.
To sweeten the deal, the CF1 is extremely easy to install and set up. Plus, it requires little maintenance to upkeep its remarkable performance. If that’s not enough, you won’t experience any drop in water pressure while using the CF1. It has a jaw-dropping flow rate of 9 GPM for a 1 – 3-bathroom unit while the CF4 (the bigger sibling) offers 12 GPM for a 4 – 6-bathroom unit. If you need a more powerful solution, the CF+ system produces a whopping 20 GPM for a 7+ bathroom unit!
If you purchase any one of the three filtering systems and it does not meet your expectations (which is highly unlikely), there’s a six-month money-back guarantee that will allow you to return it and get your money bac. Additionally, each system is covered with a manufacturer’s lifetime warranty against defects throughout its lifespan under regular application, service, and use.
PFAS chemicals are hazardous to the environment and human life. They are one of the most toxic water contaminants known to the public, mainly because they are non-biodegradable. In other words, they can remain in the environment and our bodies for a long time before they naturally break down. PFOS and PFOA, the two most studied PFAS chemicals, can wreak havoc on your health and that of your family. Even in low concentrations, these chemicals can be extremely toxic. Therefore, you must test your water for these and other contaminants beforehand, then purchase and install a top-quality water filtration system if you need to. That way, you can ensure that your water is always PFAS- and contaminant-free and that you and your loved ones are safe and healthy.