PFAS – Not just Forever, but Everywhere and Harmful – What to Know and Do

My last blogpost introduced the group of chemicals, polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, also known as “forever” chemicals, and their risks to the environmental and public health. For this post, I want to stress the extent of our exposure to these chemicals and their impact to our health.

The fact that there are more than 4,500 PFAS compounds produced ought to tell us that they are found in a huge number of products. Also, the question of why do we need so many non-stick like chemicals  comes to mind. Most of us may only be familiar with only a few of products that contain PFAS — non-stick cookware, and stain resistant fabrics for clothing, carpet, and furniture. In reality the number of common everyday products containing PFAS number in the hundreds, and many of these will surprise you. For example, PFAS can be found in some: candy wrappers, cleaning products, cosmetics, dental floss, electronics and circuit boards, fire-fighting foams, food packaging, hydraulic fluid, inks, metal plating paints, pesticides, photographic processing paper, polishes, shampoo, surfactants, and other related products. With PFAS in so many products we use or are in contact with daily, it is no wonder that 98% of us have PFAS in our blood, and the extent that they are found in our water and the environment. So, including the descriptor “everywhere” in addition to “forever” is reasonable.

Being forever and everywhere alone is reason for alarm, but combining the growing understanding of the impacts to human health, greatly escalates the danger of this group of compounds. Research studies on PFAS and human health are relatively recent, but the variety of adverse health risks known to date are highly significant and should prompt immediate response. Studies have shown the health effects include increased risk of: asthma, diabetes, decreased birth weight, cancer (kidney, testicular), increased cholesterol, kidney and liver disease, decreased immune response, decreased fertility, obesity, thyroid disease, and reduced vaccine response. These health impacts are what we know now from studies that have only looked into a small portion of the PFAS compounds.

All this information on the persistent, ubiquitous, and harmful characteristics of PFAS compounds should be a wake up call for all of us — consumers, manufacturers, regulators, and policy makers. Fortunately, the level of concern and action is slowly increasing in society. EPA is investing many resources in new regulations and research, and some states are moving rapidly to set higher drinking water standards and bans of PFAS in some or all products. A few recent examples include:

  • California banned PFAS in paper products and requires cookware to disclose the presence of PFAS, and further they will ban PFAS in children’s clothing
  • Colorado banned use of fire-fighting foams with PFAS
  • New York state ban of PFAS in detergents and paper products in 2022 
  • Maine banned the intentional addition of PFAS in food packaging in 2019  and has banned added PFAs in all products, and will be phased in
  • Pennsylvania has limited two common PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS in drinking water to 14 and 18 parts per trillion.
  • Vermont will ban PFAS in food packaging, carpets, rugs and ski wax
  • Washington state prohibited PFAS in food packaging in 2022
To date 2,850 locations in all 50 states are known to have PFAS contamination (Check out Environmental Working Groups’ interactive map:

Unfortunately, there is still much to learn, and we can expect new research to expand our understanding of the risks and seriousness of this issue. What can we as consumers do now?

A couple of suggestions are:

Check out these other tips from Clean Water Fund.

Conserving Water is a Win-Win Practice

The average American home uses more than 300 gallons of water per day, and about 75% of that is for indoor uses, like laundry and showering. Whether you are on a public water source or private well, conserving water not only saves you money, but also helps protect the environment. It takes energy to treat and deliver water to homes, and heating water can be as much as 25% of your electric bill. Using less energy also helps the environment since energy production often uses fossil fuels. 

Fortunately, conserving water is relatively simple and we all can start with some common sense practices:


  • Use high efficiency appliances and fixtures like front loading clothes washers, low flow faucets, and low-flush toilets, to reduce the water volume entering sewer or septic systems.
  • Check for and fix leaks. Leaking toilets and plumbing fixtures can account for 12% of daily water use.
  • Limit water use by taking shorter showers, turning off water when brushing teeth, and fully loading appliances (dishwashers, laundry machines and dryers).
  • Fill your sink or use a basin to wash dishes rather than running water continuously.


  • Consider landscaping that naturally requires less water.
  • Use mulch around landscaping to reduce evaporation.
  • Only water lawn once per week and no more than one inch of water (use a can to collect water and measure time it takes to get an inch).
  • Collect rainfall with a rain barrel to water landscaping.
  • Use a bucket of water to wash your car or use a commercial car washing facility.
  • Clean driveways and sidewalks with a broom rather than washing.

These easy to do practices do make a difference to your wallet and to the environment around you.  

Home Maintenance for Your Health

Maintaining your home and appliances helps them last longer, perform better, and keep their value. However, did you know following maintenance practices is also good for your family’s health? 

Let’s consider those things in the home that can influence our health. 

Keeping a clean home can reduce dust, dust mites, pet dander, bacteria, mold, and mildew. This is especially important for those that have allergies or asthma. Many of our appliances (vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, refrigerators, etc.) have filters designed to capture various contaminants.

As with any filter, including those associated with your home’s HVAC system, they have to be changed regularly to function effectively. Not changing them can lead to reduction in performance and potentially lifespan, but also, harmful contaminants can no longer be trapped and are thus released into the air and environment of the interior of your home. 

Water filters in particular, can potentially build up bacteria if filters are not changed as recommended. If you have a faucet filtration system for the whole house, as opposed to a single unit on one faucet, be sure to follow the manufacturers’ recommended maintenance schedule. 

If you are like me, you may forget when you last changed a filter or when it’s supposed to be replaced. I remember to change the smoke or carbon monoxide alarm batteries when daylight savings time begins, but may forget other appliances. To help me with keeping on a good maintenance schedule, I started writing the date of the changeover directly on the filters. 

I also put reminders and certain maintenance items, such as heating and air conditioning service, or flush my tankless water heater, on my phone calendar and set reminders. You can even include things like having your septic tank pumped every two or three years.

Finding a way or system for you to remember and getting into the habit of home maintenance will help provide peace of mind that you are not only protecting value, but also providing a healthy environment for you and your family.  

Get A Free Or Reduced Septic Tank

Do you know if it’s time for a new septic tank? Most tanks are designed to last 15-40 years when maintained correctly. Did you know that Maryland has a program that can save you a bundle on a new septic tank if your tank is nearing the end of its life, or even if you are looking to build a new home? Depending on homeowner income level, the Maryland Bay Restoration Fund can provide up to 50-100% of the cost of an approved Best Available Technology (BAT) septic tank, which costs between $11,000-$17,000.

BAT tanks are engineered to remove 50-85% more nitrogen from wastewater than conventional tanks, which is why they are also called advanced treatment systems or enhanced nutrient removal systems. This nitrogen, in the form of nitrate, can contaminate well water and pollute nearby waterways, leading to dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay—which is why the Bay Restoration funds are not eligible for installing conventional septic units.

remsberg_don jones samples septitech trash tank
The excessive rainfall of 2018 washed a particularly large amount of pollution from our yards, streets, and farms into the Bay, leading to a D+ grade. The state is trying to reduce these pollutants by helping homeowners and organizations upgrade their septic tanks. BAT tanks, like the one shown here, are so effective at treating wastewater that a sample of effluent taken from the tank is almost clear. (Photo by Edwin Remsberg)

County permitting offices manage the applications, using a tiered ranking system to determine funding support. The counties prioritize homes with failing septic systems located within 1,000-feet of tidal water, but they also support projects that may not meet these criteria. More than 14,000 BATs have been installed using these funds. Non-profit organizations are also eligible for up to 100% of the costs, and for-profit businesses are eligible for up to 50% of the costs. The fund also supports connecting to public sewer systems and, for lower income households, replacing drainfields.

If you’re considering a new septic tank, make sure to apply. Counties are allocated a specific amount per year, and unused funds are returned to the state. Those funds may as well go to your new tank!

The Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) has evaluated and approved nine BAT units for use in Maryland. These systems vary in design and efficiency. If you’re considering an upgrade, it’s important to solicit recommendations from at least three septic installers who are licensed to sell BAT tanks. Most septic professionals licensed to sell BAT units are limited to a few options, so you want to be able to understand how different models will work, how their installation will affect the look and use of your property, and how much you should expect to pay for the initial purchase and continue operation. MDE has extensive information on the nine systems including installation and maintenance costs, nitrogen removal, and electrical costs. To get more information, contact your county representative.

Signs Of Trouble In A Septic System

Do you ever think about your septic system and whether it is working as it should? Most people simply flush and forget it. But—like your heating and air conditioning system—if you don’t maintain it, it will fail, leading to expensive repairs. Your septic system is perhaps the most important and expensive appliance in your home. And problems with a septic system can be a shock not only to your checkbook, but to your senses as well!

Some of the more offensive clues that your septic system is failing include sewage backing up into your house; foul sewage odors; and, wet, spongy areas near your tank or drainfield (sometimes accompanied by excessive vegetation growth). The worst possible sign of trouble is if a family member or household guest experiences an intestinal disorder. Less unpleasant warning signs include slow draining sinks, and, possibly, alarm warnings if you have an advanced treatment system (like a BAT unit). All of these signs indicate that your tank is overfilling and your drainfield is clogging, which causes drains to backup and soggy spots in your yard.

More importantly, all of these situations are a hazard to your health, and requires immediate attention. If you are experiencing any of these signs of trouble, you should contact your local county environmental health office and a septic professional to identify what’s causing the failure and discuss a solution.

As with most things, the best approach is to avoid problems in the first place. Our most important recommendation for septic maintenance is to pump your tank every three to five years, sometimes more depending on your tank size and the number of people living in your house. We also recommend you follow these easy maintenance practices:

  • Use water efficiently—space out showers, laundry, and dishwashing; and fix leaking toilets and sinks.
  • Use green cleaners—conventional household chemicals (cleaners, paints, etc.) can kill the beneficial bacteria in your system.
  • Direct rain water drainage and hot tub water away from the tank and drainfield.
  • Don’t use a garbage disposal.
  • Don’t flush any products other than toilet paper.


If you have a well, and your septic system has failed, the sewage could be contaminating your drinking water, which could then cause gastrointestinal issues amongst family members and guests. If you’re concerned about your drinking water quality, you should work with a state-certified lab to test your well water for bacteria and nitrates—which we recommend you do annually anyways.

Maintaining your septic system will not only protect your family’s health, but a little attention to your system will also go a long way in keeping it operational and lasting for many years.


What To Do When Buying A House With A Septic System

It’s SepticSmart Week, so we’ll be discussing septic systems all… wait for it… week! Today’s post on septic systems is the second in a series about buying a house with a well and/or septic. Last week, when I mentioned that wells and septic systems are two of the most expensive appliances you’ll own, it’s particularly true for septic systems. These systems are designed to last 15-40 years, if maintained correctly. But for lots of owners, out of sight means out of mind, and these systems are often overlooked.

If you’re looking to buy a house, you will freak out at some point (if not several) about how much money you’re spending. But if that house comes with a septic system, you should definitely spend the extra money to get a licensed septic professional to inspect your system.

Why? Because if you don’t know that the septic tank is failing until after you’ve bought the house, you can expect to pay between $3000-5000 to replace a tank that you’ve only recently come to own. And if the system’s drainfield is failing, you can add in another $10,000 (or $25,000 if the system has a sand mound). So getting that septic professional’s review may save you thousands.

SepticSmart protect_it_and_inspect_it_2018
You won’t know if the owner of the house that you want to buy is SepticSmart. But you can be by hiring a licensed septic professional to make sure the system is in good condition, and then taking care of the system once it becomes yours. (Image by the EPA.)

When hiring a licensed septic professional to inspect a system, don’t settle for a dye test, where they flush a dye pack down the toilet and see if dye bubbles up in the yard. Dye tests do not provide a thorough review of the system. Instead, you want a state-approved inspection, which includes a homeowner interview, record search, site and system inspection, hydraulic load test, and final report.

You can also personally look (and smell!) for signs of trouble when first visiting a house. Look for puddles, spongy areas, bright green grass, or overgrown vegetation in the area near the tank or drainfield. Another obvious indicator of a malfunctioning septic system is a strong smell of sewage in the yard or house.

It’s easy for homeowners to assume their system is operating just fine when there aren’t obvious signs of problems. It’s not like you get a maintenance guide when you first buy a house! But the cost of replacing a failing septic system is not one that you want to take on as a new homeowner. Avoid the stress and expense by getting a licensed septic professional to thoroughly examine the system. And once that system is yours, make sure you take care of it.

Take Septic Additives Off the Shopping List

If you have a septic system, you have probably used, or considered using, a septic additive. The advertisements make them sound like a cheap and natural way to maintain your tank and system. For just a few dollars, you can remove more sludge from your tank by flushing their additives down your toilet. But do they really work as advertised? Are they worth the money? Can they help with your failing septic system?

The simple answer is no. Your septic tank already has all the bacteria it needs to work properly, as long as you routinely pump it every 3-5 years.

MOWPA_Filled DBox
If you haven’t been routinely pumping your septic tank every 3-5 years, the sludge could be pushed into parts of the system that are only meant for wastewater, like this distribution box. If a septic professional has told you that your system is failing, we recommend getting a second opinion and estimate, not septic additives. No amount of additives can help address this issue. (Photo courtesy of the Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association.)

But couldn’t the additives still help?

Well, no. Most septic tank additives contain beneficial bacteria or enzymes, or a combination of both, that the companies claim will help digest or breakdown the sludge (or waste solids) in your tank. But one of the main purposes of your tank is to collect human waste, which is loaded with the necessary bacteria species to digest the waste solids. Studies have shown that a typical, 1,000-gallon septic tank contains an average population of 3.64 billion to 3.64 trillion bacteria cells per gallon. Additives claim to add up to several billion bacteria cells per treatment. Though that sounds like a lot, it would only account for 0.1 – 1% of what is already present in your tank.

Couldn’t a little still go a long way?

The answer is still no. Numerous research studies have tested the effect that additives have on septic sludge volume and water quality. Some studies used lab-based, batch reactors (essentially, small septic tank simulations) and others tested numerous home septic tanks.  All of the studies concluded that additives did not show any significant sludge reduction or increase in bacterial populations. One additive actually introduced a negative effect by increasing total suspended solids (the small particles in liquid waste) that could impede the normal flow of the drain field. Studies also suggested that additives should not be used as a substitute for, or as a means to reduce, septic tank pumping frequency.

Don’t Forget The Bottom Line!

Septic additives cost approximately $4-10/month, or $50-120/year. One of the most important maintenance tasks to ensure a properly functioning septic systems is to routinely pump your septic tank.  The University of Maryland Extension recommends that you pump your tank every three to five years. The national average for pumping a septic tank is $380. That means that the expense of additives would cover the cost of routinely pumping your tank.

So the bottom line on septic tank additives is that they aren’t worth the money. Just call your local pumper and schedule a pump-out.

This post was co-written by Daphne.