What Are Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)?


*Updated April 10, 2024 to include new information on PFAS regulation.

Analies Dyjak  |  Policy Nerd 

Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) have received a ton of media attention in the past few years. PFAS are a category of toxic contaminants that have invaded public and private drinking water systems across the entire country. This article discusses what PFAS actually are, where they come from, their health effects, and if they are regulated by the federal government. 

What Are Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)?

Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a category of “emerging contaminants,” which means they have been detected in the environment but the risk to human health is not well-understood. GenX, PFOA, and PFOS are all common variations that fall under the category of PFAS. Chemical manufacturing companies (including DuPont, Chemours, and 3M) have been using variations of these chemicals in industrial and consumer products since the early 1950’s. Scotchgard, Teflon, firefighting foam, metal plating, heat/water repellent products, and stain resistant fabrics are associated with this category of contaminant. PFAS are extremely persistent in the environment, which means they do not readily degrade. 

Are Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Regulated?

Yes. On April 10, 2024, the US EPA has announced drinking water standards to limit exposure to 6 types of PFAS chemicalsIn addition, a few states have  established their own regulations for PFAS. Prior to this, the EPA established health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOA, but these levels were not actionable or enforceable. 

What Are The Health Effects of Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)?

According to a study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), PFAS exposure is associated with various adverse health effects, including an increased risk of cancer (kidney and testicular), lowered fertility rates, increased cholesterol, and developmental issues in infants and young children. A new study out of The Yale School of Public Health recently found that exposure to PFAS increases the risk of miscarriage by 80-120% in pregnant women. The Centers for Disease Control also issued a disclosure regarding a potential intersection between PFAS and COVID-19. This is largely in part due to the fact that exposure to PFAS decreases your body's ability to fight disease, and impacts your body's ability to respond to vaccines. 

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, published some of the most compelling research to date in April of 2020. The researchers studied birth outcomes in Minnesota from 2002-2011, where high levels of PFAS compounds were detected in East Minneapolis and Saint Paul drinking water. The researchers found that exposure to PFAS chemicals can cause low birth weights and preterm births, both of which have been associated with long term developmental issues. The Berkeley team determined "a direct causal relationship between filtration of drinking water containing high levels of exposure to PFAS and improved reproductive outcomes."

How Are Humans Exposed To Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)?

Humans are exposed to PFAS through various routes:
  • Consumption of contaminated drinking water
  • Consumption of fish and shellfish that may contain PFAS through bioaccumulation
  • Industrial exposure to workers who manufacture PFAS

What Are Public Officials Doing About Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)?

EPA set a Lifetime Health Advisory Level of 70 parts per trillion for both PFOA and PFOS. The rule of thumb for PFAS is that the sum of the category of contaminants should be no higher than 70 parts per trillion. ATSDR believes this level should be reduced to 20 parts per trillion for drinking water. Again, Lifetime Health Advisory Levels and Minimum Risk Levels are non-enforceable limits that municipalities are not required to follow.

Do All Water Filters Remove PFAS?

No. Duke University and NC State University tested various water filtration brands and their ability to remove PFAS from drinking water. We were surprised to see how poorly major brands like Brita, Pur, Berkey, Whirlpool, and GE performed in this study. If you'd like to see how Hydroviv filters stacked up, check out the results here. Some of the brands even added PFAS chemicals back into the filtered water, likely due to cheap/low quality media and over-saturation. 

If you have any questions about PFAS in your drinking water, feel free to drop us a line at hello@hydroviv.com. You can also visit hydroviv.com and use our live chat feature. 

Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
PFAS: What You Need To Know
Recap of EPA's 2018 PFAS National Leadership Summit
PFAS: Toxicological Profile
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