Per- and poly-flouroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of over 4,500 manufactured fluorine chain chemicals that are used in a wide variety of non-stick, heat, stain and oil resistant products. Common applications and products containing PFAS include non-stick cookware, food packaging, stain resistant fabrics, cleaning products, shampoo, cosmetics, toothpaste and floss, paint, pesticides, and firefighting foams.
Due to the extensive use, PFAS compounds have been observed in groundwater and drinking water supplies, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and humans throughout the United States and world. Due to the many carbon to fluorine bonds, one of the strongest bonds in nature, these compounds are very resistant to breakdown and therefore persist in the environment, giving rise to the term “forever” chemicals.
Furthermore, studies have shown that over 95% of people in the US have measurable amounts of PFAS in their bodies, with certain PFAS compounds remaining in the body for 4-8 years. Compounding this prevalence and persistence is the fact that the amounts are increasing in the environment, some food products and animals, a process known as bioaccumulation, and as the use of PFAS containing products increase, the amount in surface and groundwater accumulate.
The source of PFAS in humans is from food, dust and drinking water, with recent studies showing that the contribution from drinking water is as high as 90%. The effect on human health has been researched only on a dozen or less PFAS compounds including PFOA and PFOS, the most widely used PFAS compounds.
Exposure to these two chemicals have been attributed to significant health risks including increased risk of cancer, increased cholesterol, hormonal changes and decreased fertility, thyroid disruption and low birth weight. PFOA and PFOS were phased out by the mid 2000’s, and concentrations in humans have decreased slightly since then. However, many more PFAS are being used and produced and there remains a significant gap of knowledge on the environmental and human health effects of other PFAS compounds.
PFAS concentrations in drinking water tend to be greater near manufacturing plants, military bases and airports were firefighting foam is used. The EPA has issued a health advisory (not a regulation) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for drinking water, whereas Europe and several US states have imposed more stringent limits of PFAS in drinking water.
Even though our knowledge of the extent of risks of all PFAS compounds is very limited, the good news is that several filtration systems have been shown to be effective in removing many PFAS contaminants. These include activated carbon (10-97% removal), ion exchange (90-99% removal) and reverse osmosis (93-99% removal). These filters can be installed in homes to treat either the entire home (point of entry, POE), or point of use (POU) typically installed under the sink for drinking and cooking use.
In addition to treating our drinking water, we can all be better stewards by the choices we make. Proper recycling and disposal of unwanted household goods and products may help contain some PFAS. Investing in learning what products contain PFAS could help in making better product choices, but unfortunately, only broad product categories, as described earlier, are published. Whether a specific product contains PFAS is not readily available since no labeling requirement exists currently. More info on PFAS can be found at: CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/PFAS_FactSheet.html; EPA: https://www.epa.gov/pfas; and MDE: https://mde.maryland.gov/programs/Water/water_supply/Pages/PFAS_Home.aspx
- PFAS compounds are very resistant to breakdown and therefore persist in the environment, giving rise to the term “forever” chemicals.
- Studies have shown that over 95% of people in the US have measurable amounts of PFAS in their bodies, with certain PFAS compounds remaining in the body for 4-8 years.
- Health risks include increased risk of cancer, increased cholesterol, hormonal changes and decreased fertility, thyroid disruption and low birth weight.