No one wants to think of dangerous synthetic compounds coming through their water taps, but an environmental watchdog estimates that more than 200 million Americans could have toxic “forever chemicals” in their drinking water.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) largely focused its study on PFOA and PFOS, the two most widely studied compounds in a class of thousands of chemicals known as PFAS, or per-and polyfluorinated substances. As of July 2020, 2,230 locations in 49 states are known to have PFAS contamination, according to the EWG.
Although these compounds can be worrisome, you can take steps to help protect yourself from exposure by researching whether PFAS have been found in your area, testing your home’s water, and, if necessary, installing water treatment systems that can reduce the contaminants.
PFAS were introduced in the 1940s as repellents of fire, water, oil and stains. They have been used in commercial and industrial products like non-stick cookware, fire-fighting foams, grease-proof food packaging and water-resistant fabrics. Their strong molecular bonds have a big downside that earned them their nickname of “forever chemicals” and make them different from many other contaminants: They don’t break down in the environment.
Though many companies began phasing out the production of PFOA and PFOS in 2000, over time the water-soluble chemicals have found their way into the soil, and then into groundwater or surface water, which is how PFAS get in water supplies. Many of today’s contaminated areas are close to facilities that manufactured products with the compound or that used it for firefighting, such as oil refineries and military bases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Americans are most likely to be exposed to these chemicals by consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food, and that exposure may also occur by using products that contain PFAS, such as those noted above.
So what exactly do PFAS do to your body? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says existing studies have found exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels can have adverse health effects including cancer; issues related to the liver, immune system, cholesterol levels, and thyroid; and developmental impacts on fetuses during pregnancy and to breastfed infants. Research remains ongoing.
Unlike some elements that may be found in your water, like chlorine or hydrogen sulfide gas, you can’t taste or smell PFAS. You need help discovering if impurities are lurking there.
The EPA recommends that municipal water systems and public health officials notify consumers when PFOA and PFOS concentrations exceed its health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The agency requires water suppliers to send customers an annual drinking water quality report called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) that should address any contamination issues. You may be able to find a copy of your report on your water system’s website or through this EPA resource.
Tom Bruursema, associate executive director of member and public engagement at the Water Quality Association (WQA), encourages well water customers to reach out to local health officials, who may know if the contaminants have been detected in other well water supplies in the area.
If testing your public or private water will give you peace of mind, you can hire a water treatment professional who will take a sample and send it to a certified lab for testing. You can also send a sample yourself to a certified lab. Your state should be able to refer you to ones that test for PFAS using EPA Method 537.
So what do you do about PFAS in your water if testing indicates a presence of the toxins? “If you know you have it in your water, you don’t want to ingest it,” says Gary Falkengren, Culligan’s problem water specialist. “You’ll want to consider an alternative water source or a certified filtration system.”
If you opt for water treatment, choosing the right system is important. Some, but not all water filters, can remove PFAS to the EPA’s advisory level of less than 70 ppt. Common refrigerator filters or filters found in pitchers, for instance, may not have enough carbon or the best type of carbon to reduce PFOA and PFOS. Look for water treatment solutions certified by third parties such as NSF/ANSI, WQA or IAPMO for performance and reduction of these specific contaminants.
Some products can be installed where you access drinking water, like an under-sink water system with reverse osmosis that uses additional filters specifically certified to remove PFOA and PFOS. Alternatively, if you want to reduce the chemicals in all of your home’s water, you can look for a whole house that treats water as it enters your home, like one with two large tanks of activated carbon.
It may surprise you to learn there is not yet a federal drinking water standard for PFAS. The health advisory level of 70 ppt set by the EPA is non-enforceable, though some states that consider that level to be too high for drinking water have set much lower allowable limits. Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Michigan were among the states that set stricter standards in 2020.
The moves are a reaction to “the expediency that people feel needs to be given to these particular contaminants,” says the WQA’s Bruursema, noting that consumers are now learning more about these chemicals through growing media coverage.