What Are PFAS and Why Should You be Aware of PFAS in Drinking Water

Posted on October 26, 2020
water spilling from gray faucet

Prominent man-made chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, have been making headlines in recent years and for a good reason. PFAS are persistent in the environment and in the human body, which means they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time.[1] As industries around the world use the toxic chemicals in their day-to-day operations, it’s likely more communities will face exposure to PFAS in water and the surrounding environment.

PFAS are a series of thousands of chemical compounds that have been found in a wide range of products used by many industries, including aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, and military.[2] PFAS are found in a wide range of consumer products that people use on a regular basis such as cookware, pizza boxes, stain repellants, and firefighting foam. Those chemicals eventually break down and can turn up as PFAS in drinking water.

Before we discuss PFAS in drinking water, we first want to make sure that we’re all on the same page. When we refer to PFAS, we’re not just talking about one or even a handful of chemical compounds. There are nearly 5,000 types of PFAS chemicals, some of those chemicals have been more widely studied than others.[3]

What are the different types of PFAS?

PFOA and PFOS

There are thousands of kinds of PFAS chemicals. The most popular ones, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), have been the most extensively produced and studied PFAS chemicals.

Those compounds might seem like harmless acronyms, but both are capable of inflicting serious damage on nature and the human body. Similar to plastic, PFOA and PFOS don’t break down and can build up over time. So even though PFOA and PFOS have been voluntarily phased out by industry in the United States, they continue to persist in the environment. Plus, PFOA and PFOS are still produced internationally and are often delivered to the United States in the form of transported goods like carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, rubber, and plastics.[4]

GenX

GenX was originally created to replace the PFOA for manufacturing fluoropolymers such as Teflon®.[5] Since the GenX replacement PFAS is still relatively new, little is known about the longer-term health effects of the compound. Recent studies have linked GenX to cancer in laboratory animals. However, there is also research that suggests GenX is safe at low doses.[6]

What are the sources of PFAS in drinking water?

Sources of PFAS in drinking water infographic

Image Courtesy of ncpfastnetwork.com

Researchers have found PFAS in drinking water in at least 25 states. According to Chemical & Engineering News, PFAS may contaminate public drinking water systems that serve an estimated 19 million people living in the United States.[7] PFAS can seep into public water systems in a variety of different ways. The chemicals can enter the environment directly from landfills where products such as plastics and carpets break down and leach into the air, soil, and water. PFAS have also been known to linger long after their production. There was a case in Michigan, for instance, where remnants of PFAS chemicals leftover from firefighting activities at a military base were present in groundwater for 15 years.

Furthermore, PFAS are highly soluble and persistent, making them mobile in soil and prone to leaching into groundwater and traveling long distances. There have been traces of PFAS in water detected in wastewater treatment plants, as well as some of the most remote regions in the world like the deepest parts of the Arctic ocean.[8]

Health Risks Associated with PFAS

PFAS in water is hard to detect since the chemicals don’t have any taste or color,[9] which is part of the reason why many people wind up unknowingly ingesting the toxins. As part of a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey [10], CDC scientists found PFAS in the serum of nearly all the people who were tested during the survey. Those findings indicate widespread exposure to four main types of PFAS (PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS, and PFNA) in the United States population.

A growing body of study around PFAS in water and other types of PFAS exposure has found the chemicals can cause various adverse health effects, including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer.

What is the EPA Doing to Prevent PFAS from Entering Our Drinking Water?

As you’ve probably noticed, PFAS can be a scary and silent threat, but the growing awareness of its presence and negative health effects on the public and the environment has led to stricter Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. The EPA has offered new treatment options for PFAS in drinking water that include:

  • Establishing methods to measure 14 PFAS compounds in drinking water
  • Identifying five treatment processes for PFOA and PFOS
  • Identifying all PFAS chemicals that are legally available for production and use
  • Providing national monitoring data for 6 PFAS in drinking water
  • Issuing advisories that let people know when PFOA and PFOS is detected in the local drinking water sources[11]

Beyond the above protocols, the EPA offers additional support to states facing particularly difficult PFAS challenges. If you’re curious and interested to know what other precautions the EPA is taking to prevent further exposure to PFAS, you can check out the EPA website here.

A Filtered Water Dispenser from Quench Can Filter Out Certain PFAS

If you’re worried about exposure to PFAS in public buildings like schools, warehouses, gyms, and doctor’s offices, the Quench Water Experts recommend looking into filtered water dispensers with advanced filtration technologies like carbon filtration or reverse osmosis filter systems. Advanced carbon filtration systems for water can trap and remove a large percentage of impurities in water. Activated carbon filtration is common in bottleless water systems. An even higher percentage of impurities can be removed using reverse osmosis filter systems. If you’re asking yourself the question, “how does reverse osmosis work exactly?” You can find the answers here.

To learn more about your local water quality and which Quench water filtration system is best for your workplace, click on the green “Get a Free Quote” button on your screen, fill out a form, and we will have one of our highly trained Quench Water Experts reach out to you.

You can also visit our website and check out our product pages to learn more about some of our most advanced filtered water dispensers with reverse osmosis filter systems like the Quench 810, the Q7, and the Q5.


[1] https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

[2] https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

[3] https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pfc/index.cfm

[4] https://www.fda.gov/food/chemicals/and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas

[5] https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

[6] https://www.bvlabs.com/insights/articles/pfas-replacement-compounds

[7] https://fortune.com/longform/teflon-pollution-north-carolina

[8] https://cen.acs.org/environment/persistent-pollutants/limiting-PFAS-drinking-water-challenge/98/i27

[9] https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/insight/these-chemicals-are-forever-water-contamination-pfoa-pfos-and-other-pfas

[10] https://www.michigan.gov/pfasresponse/0,9038,7-365-86704_86712—,00.html

[11] https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/PFAS_FactSheet.html

[12] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/pfasv15_2pg_0.pdf

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