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Perfluoroalkyl And Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs): What You Need To Know

Perfluoroalkyl And Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs): What You Need To Know

Stephanie Angione, Ph.D. |  Scientific Contributor

What Are Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)?

Fluorinated substances include a diverse range of chemical compounds that all contain at least one fluorine (F) atom. These substances vary in the amount of fluorine atoms they contain, and those that are highly fluorinated, or contain many F atoms per carbon (C) atom are referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances. These highly fluorinated substances are unique in their hydrophobic (water repellent) and lipophobic/oleophobic (fat/oil repellent) properties, as well as their general chemical and thermal stability.  

These properties have made PFAS substances common in many types of applications, including creation of non-stick cooking surfaces, stain and water resistant coatings on fabrics, creation of oil/fat resistant food packaging and also in foam materials used to fight and prevent fires. Additionally, the automotive, aerospace, and construction industries have widely used these fluorinated substances for various applications due to their low friction properties.

Common PFASs include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which have been used in the production of Teflon and Scotchgard respectively. The manufacturer 3M phased out the production of PFOS in 2002 and the EPA helped manufacturers of PFOA phase out production completely in 2015.

How Do PFAS Substances Contaminate the Environment?

PFASs are deemed “emerging contaminates” by the EPA; meaning that they are chemicals or materials thought to pose a potential threat to health and the environment, but haven't yet been regulated. PFASs contribute to environmental contamination largely due to the fact that they are highly resistant to degradation processes, and thus persist for many years in water, air and can enter the food chain via bioaccumulation in certain animal species.  

The primary sources of human exposure to PFASs include:

  • Consumption of contaminated drinking water
  • Consumption of food that is packaged in materials containing PFASs, which have included fast food containers, microwave popcorn bags. (Most food manufactures have stopped using PFASs in these types of packaging.)
  • Consumption of food that contains PFASs, including fish and shellfish
  • Contact (hand to mouth) with clothing, carpets or other fabrics that have been treated with PFASs. (Skin exposure to PFASs on their own does not cause significant absorption into the body.)
  • Industrial exposure to workers who manufacture of utilize PFASs containing products

Since PFOS and PFOA are two of the most common PFASs, exposure to these compounds is widespread. These PFASs, as well as the many others, accumulate in the human body and are only broken down very slowly. These compounds take anywhere from 2-9 years to be eliminated. Thus, most people in the U.S. have detectable amounts of PFASs in their blood.  However, due to the global stewardship program established by the EPA to phase out all production of PFASs by 2015, the overall blood concentration in the U.S. population is declining.

What Are the Health Effects of PFAS Substances?

The discovery of persistent contamination of drinking water sources with PFOA in West Virginia and Ohio prompted a large epidemiological study called the C8 Health Project. The study included nearly 70,000 individuals who had elevated PFOA levels in blood – approximately 500% higher than the representative population. The study found statistical correlation between elevated blood concentrations of PFOA with ulcerative colitis, impaired thyroid function, high blood cholesterol, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and preeclampsia.

How Do Polyfluoroalkyl & Perfluoroalkyl Substances Contaminate Drinking Water?

In 2016 the EPA released a lifetime health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. This advisory indicates that the individual or combined concentration of PFOA and PFOS in water should be less than 70 parts per trillion (ppt). This EPA guideline is not an enforced limit  it simply provides guidance to local public health officials.  However, under EPA guidelines issued in 2012, water systems are required to monitor levels of PFOA and PFOS. The results of this monitoring effort can be found on the National Contaminant Occurrence Database. Together with data collected under the monitoring effort and established assessments of human health effects, the EPA will make a regulatory determination to include PFOA and PFOS in national drinking water regulations.

Communities that have sources of drinking water contaminated with PFASs are typically localized and associated with a specific industrial facility or area used for firefighting. Both PFOA and PFOS have been found in drinking water systems due to this kind of localized contamination. A 2016 study of drinking water in the U.S. found unsafe levels of PFASs at the EPA minimum level of 70 ppt in 194 out of 4,864 water sources in 33 states. Of these states, 75% of the contaminated water sources were found in order of frequency: CA, NJ, NC, AL, FL, PA, OH, NY, GA, MN, AZ, MA, and IL. Water sources with the highest levels of PFAS contamination were near industrial sites and military bases, and one of the major contributing sources was found to be firefighting foam.

How Do I Find Out If My Drinking Water Is Contaminated With Polyfluoroalkyl & Perfluoroalkyl Substances?

If you are concerned about PFOA, PFOS or other PFASs contaminants in your drinking water and are served by a public water system, your local water supplier is required to issue a Consumer Confidence Report that lists contaminant levels in the water supply.

If you get water from a household well, the local health department should have information about ground water quality and contaminants of concern, but it is often a good idea to have your water tested by a certified laboratory for PFAS contaminants. The EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) can provide additional resources in your local area.

How Can I Remove Polyfluoroalkyl & Perfluoroalkyl Substances From My Drinking Water?

Some public water systems employ methods (like granulated or powdered activated carbon) to reduce PFOA and PFOS at the municipal level, but these systems do not remove shorter-chain PFAS, like GenX.  Hydroviv water filters use a blend of highly-porous carbon, specialized ceramics, and ion exchange media to provide broad protection against PFASs (short and long chain) from drinking water. More expensive reverse osmosis systems are also effective, but many of the most common carbon filters on the market do not effectively reduce these chemicals.

Hydroviv makes it our business to help you better understand your water. As always, feel free to take advantage of our “help no matter what” approach to technical support! Our water nerds will work to answer your questions, even if you have no intention of purchasing one of our water filters. Reach out by dropping us an email (hello@hydroviv.com) or through our live chat. You can also find us on Twitter or Facebook!

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Digging Into The Environmental Working Group Tap Water Database

Digging Into The Environmental Working Group Tap Water Database

Eric Roy, Ph.D.  |  Scientific Founder   

This past week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a website where people punch in their zip code, and view contaminants found in their water.  As a company that uses water quality data to optimize each customer’s water filter, we applaud EWG for putting in the enormous amount of time & effort to build the database so the public can learn about their water.  Unfortunately, we are seeing that these data are being used to generate inflammatory headlines, which can leave consumers confused and unnecessarily panicked.   

We will be updating this water quality database blog post as more questions come in. If you have your own question, please reach out to us (hello@hydroviv.com).  One of our water nerds will do their best to get back to you very quickly, even if it’s outside of our business hours.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Updated July 31, 2017

Are All Potential Contaminants Listed In The EWG Tap Water Database?  

No.  The EWG Tap Water Database pulls data from municipal measurements, but municipalities are only required to test for certain things.  Simply put, you can’t detect what you don’t look for.  One example of this can be seen by punching in Zip Code 28402 (Wilmington, North Carolina) into the EWG Tap Water Database.  GenX, a chemical that has been discharged into the Cape Fear River by Chemours since PFOA since 2010, is not listed, even though it’s been in the center of a huge topic of conversation for the past 2 months in the local media.

Why Is The “Health Guideline” Different Than The “Legal Limit?”

The two different thresholds use different criteria.  For example, the “Health Guideline” cited by EWG for carcinogens is defined by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) as a one-in-a-million lifetime risk of cancer, while the “Legal Limit” refers to the MCL which is the limit that triggers a violation by EPA.  The OEHHA's criteria are established by toxicological techniques, while the EPA limits are negotiated through political channels.  We wrote an article that addresses this topic in much more detail for those who are interested.

Why Am I Just Learning About This Now?

The EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act requires municipalities to make water quality test data public in Consumer Confidence Reports.  These reports are required to talk about the water's source, information about any regulated contaminants found in the water, health effects of any regulated contaminant found above the regulated limit, and a few other things.  As discussed before, the data in the EWG report use different criteria than the EPA, and it's hard for people to make sense of what's what.  

Are The Data Correct If My Water Comes From A Private Well?

No.  The EWG Tap Water Database only has data for municipal tap water.  Private wells are completely unregulated, and there's no requirement to conduct testing.  If you'd like us to dig into our additional water quality databases to help you understand likely contaminants in your private well, we're happy to do so.  We don't offer testing services, but we're happy to help you find an accredited lab in your area, give advice on which tests to run, and help you interpret the results!  We offer this service for free.

What About My City's Water Quality?

Hydroviv makes it our business to help you better understand your water.  As always, feel free to take advantage of our “help no matter what” approach to technical support!  Our water nerds will work to answer your questions, even if you have no intention of purchasing one of our water filters.  Reach out by dropping us an email (hello@hydroviv.com) or through our live chat. You can also find us on Twitter or Facebook!

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