Get Started with a Free Water Consultation

What are PFAS Chemicals?


Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also called PFAS or “forever chemicals,” are man-made materials that can potentially last thousands of years before breaking down. Used in a variety of consumer products and industrial processes since the 1950s, PFAS substances are now recognized for their possible harmful health effects. They’re being phased out of items like food packaging and grease-proofing agents. However, because of their longevity, materials in this large chemical class are still present in air, soil, water and even human bodies across the globe.

What does that mean for public health? While scientists have a lot more work to do to understand the full effects of PFAS pollution, your biggest responsibility is to identify and avoid exposure wherever you can. That means learning about possible PFAS levels in your tap water.

Here’s everything you need to know and how to manage PFAS chemicals.

PFAS Chemicals in Water: What You Need To Know

There’s a lot to know about PFAS, especially in drinking water. Although these are pretty serious topics, this kind of research isn’t intended to scare you; instead, it should help you make informed decisions and take control of your water quality, health and more.

Here’s a look at some of the most important facts about PFAS chemicals:

What Are PFAS?

The term “PFAS” refers to a group of chemicals so big that chemists have made “family trees” to keep track of all the relationships. Two PFAS contaminants, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), are particularly common and well-studied because they were produced in the largest amounts in many areas. You’re likely to see a lot of information about them when researching PFAS in general.

Of course, not all man-made chemicals fall into this category. A forever chemical earns its name from its unique combination of carbon and fluorine atoms. This creates a particularly strong bond. While this was a great way to make consumer products longer-lasting, it also created substances that can’t easily dissolve, disintegrate or break down. PFAS substances also are known for:

  • Being synthetic and not naturally found in the environment
  • Lasting a long time in different environments, including the bodies of humans and wildlife, without breaking down
  • Containing certain properties that help products resist heat, oil, water and more

Can You See, Smell or Taste PFAS Chemicals?

Unlike some other chemicals, PFAS are essentially invisible to human senses. That means there won’t be any hints that it may be in your drinking water, food or body. This is part of what makes forever chemicals so difficult to identify, study and address.

Where Do PFAS Come From?

PFAS chemicals have been phased out of many products in North America; however, that doesn’t mean they’re gone. It’s an important step toward ensuring that fewer PFAS are added to the environment moving forward, but it doesn’t fully address the historical uses that still impact natural systems and environments. On top of that, some manufacturers phased out PFOA and PFOS chemicals only to replace them with different PFAS.

So, where might you find PFAS chemicals? Here are just a few examples:

  • Nonstick cookware
  • Water-resistant fabrics such as umbrellas or rain jackets
  • Personal care products including shampoo and eye makeup
  • Food packaging
  • Cleaning products
  • Fire-fighting foam (most commonly used in relation to aviation fuel)

Beyond individual products, these potentially toxic chemicals have also been part of industrial processes like photo imaging, oil production, metal plating, coating semiconductors, creating medical devices and more.

How Can You Get Exposed To PFAS?

Workers in some industries are especially likely to be exposed to certain PFAS substances, but almost everyone likely has some level of PFAS exposure. In fact, from 1999 to 2004, U.S. research detected PFAS in a majority of blood samples — between 95 and 100%.

That’s because PFAS chemicals move through the environment and touch almost everything. For example, when consumer products made with PFAS go to landfills, the chemicals can end up in the soil and eventually both ground and surface water. That means living things everywhere — including the plants and animals that make up so much of the modern diet — are repeatedly exposed to these potentially toxic chemicals. Worse yet, PFAS can bioaccumulate or build up in fish and wildlife, meaning that they move quickly through the food chain.

Simply put, PFAS exposure has countless everyday sources:

  • Eating plants grown with contaminated soil or water
  • Eating animals that ate these plants or drank contaminated water
  • Drinking milk from contaminated animals
  • Eating anything transported or sold in certain kinds of packaging
  • Touching PFAS-treated surfaces (like carpets) and then touching your mouth
  • Inhaling contaminated air
  • Drinking from any contaminated water system, including municipal and well water

You can also be exposed to these chemicals through skin contact alone, but uptake is slow and generally not considered significant.

Some types of exposure are more common for certain groups. For example, workers may be most likely to inhale contaminated air, while infants and toddlers often encounter PFAS through hand-to-mouth exposure or breastmilk.

What are the Human Health Impacts?

PFAS chemicals can stay in the human body for years and can build up over time. While more research is needed to identify specific health effects and related levels of PFAS exposure, currently, the primary concern is around increased risks for multiple types of cancer. In addition, studies have indicated potential links to:

  • Impacted immune system activities and responses
  • Fertility issues
  • Decreased vaccine responses
  • Increased cholesterol levels

Some issues may even affect pets — so it’s clear that PFAS contamination is relevant for everyone.

Drinking Water Spotlight: PFAS Concerns

We’ve seen that PFAS chemicals are incredibly mobile in natural environments — but what does that mean for your tap water?

The truth is that PFAS have a lot of paths to your drinking glass.* For example, if your water passes by any site where these chemicals are made, spilled or disposed of, there’s a chance of contamination. On top of that, PFAS in the air can get into rainwater and end up in both groundwater (like aquifers) and surface water (like lakes and rivers). Because wells often draw from groundwater and the public water system may use both sources, there are a variety of ways PFAS chemicals may get into your water. Even sparkling water may contain PFAS. That’s because many bottling companies draw their water from the same sources as the public water system.

It’s important to note that governments around the world are working on regulations to protect your drinking water. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced new guidelines in a PFAS action plan. The Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality also establish rules for PFOA and PFOS. However, there’s still much work to be done — and that means you need to know what your options are in the meantime.

Are There PFAS Chemicals in Your Water?

Because you can’t see, smell or taste PFAS chemicals, you’ll need to test your water to determine if any of these substances may be present.

For municipal water, a good first step to take is to check your local Consumer Confidence Report, which is required to publish water testing results annually. While not all public water providers are testing for PFAS yet, if your report indicates their presence in your water system, it’s a good time to pursue a solution. If you don’t see PFAS referenced among what is tested in your report, you can get your water tested on your own. If you have private well water, you’re fully responsible for testing your own water and ensuring its quality, so this is especially important.

You can find DIY tests for some types of basic contaminants. However, not all of these tests are comprehensive or even accurate – and they may be difficult to use or interpret — and that’s just for everyday substances. When it comes to PFAS, you’ll want to partner with a local water specialist like Culligan for professional testing.

But you don’t have to stop there. PFAS chemicals aren’t the only substances that could be in your drinking water; from iron, copper and lead to bacteria and microplastics, it’s important to know what’s really coming out of your tap. Some of these impurities can be identified in a free home water test while others can be checked alongside PFAS in a laboratory test.

Concerned about potential contamination?
Try our Water Solutions Finder.

Water Solutions for PFAS

Now that you know what PFAS chemicals are, where they come from and why they could be a concern, it’s time to focus on how you can avoid exposure. When it comes to your drinking water, there’s one easy answer: reverse osmosis (RO) water filtration systems – provided that they have the right type of additional filtration stage included to address this particular issue.

Reverse osmosis is a process that uses a semipermeable membrane as a sort of net, catching and filtering a huge range of contaminants. However, because the membrane itself doesn’t address all types of contaminants (like PFAS), the most effective RO systems also include additional filtration methods and solutions that address even more impurities. They can target:

  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Pesticides
  • Lead
  • Arsenic
  • Copper
  • Mercury
  • Total dissolved solids (TDS)

Currently most systems focus on the two most common — PFOA and PFOS. However, there are thousands of PFAS chemicals. The best way to ensure you’re getting the most comprehensive solution is to find that combination of RO plus additional filtration.

It’s important to choose an RO system certified by an accredited third-party organization. You want to look for certification to NSF/ANSI 53 for specific contaminant reduction.

What About Other Filters?

Not all filters can handle contaminants like PFAS. Some can’t even handle better-known substances like lead and pesticides.

For example, basic filters — including many standard pitcher and refrigerator models — often aren’t a reliable solution for PFAS chemicals. These filters also don’t typically address the water you cook with, which can add PFAS exposure to your favorite meals. Generally speaking, these systems are a good temporary or simple solution, but you often can’t rely on them for anything more complicated than basic contaminants.

You’ll also need to be careful when choosing an RO system. Some are more comprehensive than others, and while they can often handle an impressive range of impurities, not all of them are certified for PFAS reduction.

Are There Other Solutions?

For some contaminants, you can rely on DIY solutions like boiling water or letting it sit for a few hours. However, PFAS chemicals are more complicated — and remember, their carbon-fluorine bond makes them particularly strong and difficult to break down. Boiling or letting these sit would actually increase the concentration of these chemicals, because some of the water is evaporating. That’s why these solutions aren’t suitable for PFAS reduction in place of an RO system with additional filtration as described above.

However, there are other ways to protect yourself from PFAS contamination. Here are a few ideas:

  • Look for PFAS-free labels
  • Avoid products like nonstick cookware and anything labeled stain- or water-resistant
  • Leave shoes outside to prevent bringing contaminated soil inside
  • Avoid eating fish from PFAS-contaminated areas
  • Stay informed about PFAS regulations and drinking water health advisories

The Easy Path to Better Water

You don’t have to know everything about PFAS to avoid exposure, especially when it comes to drinking water. All you have to do is call in your local water expert for help.

You can start with a free water test to identify common contaminants. Your local expert will explain laboratory testing options for PFAS chemicals and other complex impurities. Once you have all the right information, your expert will help you choose the best RO system for your unique needs.

Ready to take the first step? Schedule your free, in-home water test and consultation.

*Contaminants may not be present in your water.

Find A Location Near Me


Schedule Your Free
In-Home Water Test

Get better water in your home by scheduling an appointment with your local Culligan Water Expert.

Our Products

blue wave
Water Softeners

Water Softeners

With any of our soft water systems, get more out of your water-using appliances while spending less on energy and detergent.

View Products

Water Delivery

Water Delivery

There’s never been a better time to enjoy the convenience of scheduled bottled water deliveries from the Culligan® Water Experts

View Products

Water Filtration Systems

Water Filtration Systems

Culligan's water filtration systems have improved water quality for thousands of families worldwide.

View Products