PFAS in drinking water - what you need to know

PFAS in drinking water - what you need to know

Published March 23, 2024

5 minute read

You try to make all the best decisions when buying for yourself and your family. You insist on organic greens and steer clear of any plastics with BPAs. But now you’re hearing about PFAS, commonly known as forever chemicals, in your drinking water. 

When making safe buying decisions, it’s important to have all the facts. So, today we’re going to explore the threat of PFAS chemicals in drinking water and everyday household items. You're going to discover what exactly PFAS chemicals are, and what type of risk they pose.

The basics: What are PFAS chemicals?

PFAS stands for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. It consists of a group of more than 5,000 chemicals that have been commonly used since the 1950s in countless household products. The most common use was to coat things to protect them from water, oil/grease, or stains.

The most common chemicals include:

• Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)
• Perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)
• Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
• Perfluorhexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)

They are ominously referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in our bodies or in the environment.

How dangerous are PFAS chemicals?

One of the most concerning aspects of these chemicals is that experts still haven’t given us a clear answer on how dangerous they truly are.

They’re ubiquitous and they can be found nearly anywhere, but we still don’t know exactly how much exposure is truly dangerous.

However, early research has linked PFAS chemicals to:

●    Cancer of the kidney or testicles
●    Problems with the immune system that could include lower responses to vaccines in children
●    Increased cholesterol or weight gain
●    Elevated AST, ALT, GGT, and ALP levels in the liver

This is far from an official list, as we’re still learning about the effects and risks.

What products contain PFAS?

As we mentioned above, these chemicals often show up in coatings manufactured to protect consumer goods.

This could include:

  • Household cleaners
  •  The foam inside fire extinguishers
  •  Stain guards on carpets or furniture
  • The paper or cardboard in fast food packaging
  • Water-proofing on a raincoat or pair of yoga pants
  • Personal care products including everything from dental floss to shampoo 

Sadly, there isn't a universal database that lists all the things you should avoid. If you’re concerned about a particular product or company, you should search the product name online + PFAS, or look at the ingredients on the actual packaging.

PFAS chemicals and drinking water

In early 2023, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) released a concerning report that estimated that 45% of the nation’s drinking water may be contaminated with at least one PFAS chemical.

Even more concerning, The USGS acknowledged that they were only looking for 32 specific chemicals in both private and government-regulated public water supplies. Meanwhile, thousands of others would not show up in a test sample.


Blog - PFAS in Drinking Water - Map and Chart

Image source: The USGS

It’s also been estimated that more than 200 million Americans rely on tap water that contains PFOA and PFOS concentrations of 1 part per trillion (ppt) or higher. Other research points to 100 million Americans with drinking water that probably has PFAS levels of 70 ppt. That 70 ppt mark was the limit established by the EPA in 2016 before they released new legal limits of 4 ppt (each) for PFOS and PFOA.

Many scientists have said that the new threshold is a step forward, but it’s still not enough. At the same time, the EPA’s new limits are also unenforceable. That’s why they are exploring a new reporting rule that would require tap water utilities to report information about any levels of PFAS above 4 ppt.

Unfortunately, the story is similar around the world. In 2019 the European Environment Agency stated that national monitoring activities had detected PFAS in the environment across Europe. The EEAs report identified areas “around industrial production, manufacturing and application sites” to be particularly contaminated.

This has led to contaminated drinking water around factories in Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, and around airports and military bases in Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In the UK, PFAS were detected in drinking water sources at 17 of England’s 18 water companies.

The EEA report estimates that around 100,000 sites around Europe are potentially emitting PFAS. The Forever Pollution Project, a collaboration between journalists across Europe, has stated that their research shows nearly 23,000 sites as being contaminated by PFAS, with a further 21,500 presumptive contamination sites.

To highlight the seriousness of the situation, 11 past and present EU officials took part in an awareness campaign which involved testing their blood for 13 PFAS. Up to seven toxic substances were found in the 11 participants, with five of them exceeding safe levels.

The EUs Drinking Water Directive (2020) specifically refers to “tackling emerging pollutants, such as endocrine disruptors and PFAs, as well as microplastics” as one of its key features, while the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is currently evaluating a proposal to restrict PFAS under REACH, the EU’s chemicals regulation.

Global efforts to tackle PFAS in drinking water are significantly hampered by a lack of consistency in approach. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) chemical working group has developed a draft document for Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality (GDWQ) on PFAS in drinking water. This is currently undergoing peer review, but this process could take several years.

What can you do about PFAS in your water?

To ascertain what, if any, PFAS chemicals are in your drinking water, experts say that the most accurate results will come from a professional lab.

Opinions will vary on what the safe level of PFAS in your water may be, even though a popular number is 1 ppt. But nobody would debate that zero is always the best number.

The bad news is that your standard Britta filter was not designed to remove PFAS chemicals in water, so they’re not going to get the job done. The good news is that you have other very effective options.

You can install a more robust water filter system in your home for the whole house, or just for the kitchen at your sink and fridge’s water supply. Remember, not all filters are made to remove PFAS. In North America You want to look for the code NSF/ANSI 53 for a standard system, or the code NSF/ANSI 58 for reverse osmosis systems.

Also, check the packaging for some sort of certification from a trusted body like:

  • The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)
  • Water Quality Association (WQA)
  • International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials (IAPMO)
  • UL Solutions
  • CSA Group (ETL)

It’s also recommended that you buy your home’s unit from a retailer that specialises in water filtration products. They have experts who can help you pick the perfect unit without overspending, and they’re often a quick phone call away if you have any questions or problems.

What about PFAS in plastic water bottles?

Single-use plastic water bottles have been making headlines for all of the wrong reasons in recent years. However, a 2021 Johns Hopkins University study reported that low-density plastic bottles are probably not a significant source of PFAS chemicals.

They studied 101 consumer products that billed themselves as one of these types of water: 

  • Purified
  • Distilled
  • Alkaline
  • Spring

While the study didn’t disclose any brand names, they said “Purified” water was found to be the safest.

Sparkling water may contain more PFAS chemicals than ordinary bottled water, according to a 2020 Consumer Reports test that looked at 47 different brands of bottled water.

So what should you do?

It may be disheartening to learn how many products could contain PFAS chemicals or to hear how little we know about them. But you can still protect yourself and your family.

First and foremost, get your home water tested. If you’re concerned with the levels you see in the test results, look at getting a filtration system. Remember, you don’t need an expensive whole-home system that will filter all of the water in the kitchen, bathrooms, and outdoor taps. You can install a more affordable model in your kitchen to just clean your drinking water. And make sure you’re using the right type of filters!

Besides that, the best way to protect yourself is to do a bit of homework. Google to see if your favourite brands, or any products you’re about to buy, have been known to contain high levels of PFAS.

When buying clothing, you might consider using this scorecard created by Fashion FWD and U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

It may not be possible to eliminate PFAS in your life, but you can definitely limit your exposure!

At EcoOnline, we strive to help our customers make safer chemical choices for themselves and the environment. Our Chemical Substitution software lets you substitute potentially harmful chemicals in the workplace with suitable alternatives quickly and easily. Learn more about this process below!

explore EcoOnline's chemical substitution software

Author Ryan LeClaire

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