Perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of toxic chemicals that accumulate in the environment and living organisms, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.”
At this time, cancer-linked PFAS are legally allowed to pollute public drinking water supplies in the United States. Testing for these chemicals is not required, nor is removal. Yet, PFAS have been detected in all 50 states, and experts estimate 200 million Americans drink (and use) tap water contaminated with toxic PFAS daily. Given the lack of testing and regulations, that’s likely a conservative estimate.
On June 15th, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an alarming advisory warning that several PFAS are far more toxic than previously thought and pose severe health risks in water, even at tiny, “near-zero” levels (we’ve summarized that advisory here). The advisory shrunk existing tap water recommendations for two specific PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, to almost zero, indicating these chemicals are dangerous at virtually any level in tap water. The advisory also introduced recommendations for two additional PFAS, GenX and PFBS, indicating both chemicals pose similar and serious dangers to human health in water.
However, that advisory only offers recommendations, not regulations. Therefore, nothing in the advisory can be enforced by law. Meaning PFAS continue to legally poison our public drinking water supplies in all 50 states at this very moment, and without us even recognizing it.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into PFAS chemicals to learn more about what they are, their prevalence, associated health risks, and ways to limit your daily exposure.
Please note: As new information is released, this guide will be updated with the latest information, advisories, and data regarding PFAS in public drinking water supplies.
Guide last updated 3/23/23.
Table Of Contents
- What are PFAS?
- What are PFOA & PFOS?
- What are GenX & PFBS?
- The history of PFAS
- Why are PFAS called “Forever Chemicals”?
- What makes PFAS dangerous?
- What are the health concerns with PFAS?
- How do PFAS get in our water?
- Is your water contaminated?
- Latest news and recommendations
- How to protect yourself
What Are PFAS?
PFAS are a family of more than 9,000 toxic man-made chemicals that can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted. Even without required testing, multiple PFAS have been found in public water supplies (i.e., tap water) from coast to coast and have been linked to cancer, congenital disabilities, thyroid issues, and other health effects (more on that later). Plus, PFAS are nearly indestructible, as they can survive and accumulate in our environment and “build up” in our blood for decades. Unfortunately, this is precisely what is happening right now throughout the United States (and beyond our borders), as studies show more than 98% of the U.S. population already have detectable PFAS concentrations in their blood.
PFOA & PFOS Plaguing Public Water Supplies
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) are two of the most researched and prevalent members of the PFAS family. PFOA, also known as C8, was originally the infamous chemical in Teflon products due to its non-stick properties. And it is still used in many consumer goods today. PFOS, on the other hand, became prevalent in our environment (and water supplies) due to its use in firefighting foam. These chemicals can still be found in food, clothing, furniture, and everyday products (more on that in a minute).
What Are GenX and PFBS?
Like PFOA and PFOS, GenX and PFBS (perfluorobutanesulfonic acid) are two additional types of PFAS. GenX and PFBS were created as alternatives to PFOA and PFOS to replace their toxic predecessors. However, a report from the U.S. EPA confirmed these chemicals are toxic, too. GenX is associated with harmful effects on the kidney, blood, immune system, liver, and development and is linked to elevated cancer risk. Meanwhile, PFBS is associated with detrimental effects on the thyroid, kidney, reproduction, and development.
Scientists in the 1930s accidentally engineered PFAS. They found the chemicals virtually indestructible and were delighted to realize they could prevent and even repel food, oil, grease, dirt, moisture, and more from sticking to surfaces. Plus, they were heat-resistant. For those reasons, PFAS lurking in our public water supplies today, like PFOA, were initially used to coat tanks and military instruments to protect them from the elements. They were even used in the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. Does that sound like something safe to drink?
PFAS Are Used In Everyday Consumer Products
Shortly after they were engineered, chemical companies like 3M and DuPont began using PFAS in consumer goods. For example, PFOA, perhaps the most notorious PFAS, was used in non-stick cookware under the brand name Teflon. Another common PFAS, PFOS, was (and is) used in firefighting foam. Today, PFAS are found in all kinds of consumer goods, from carpet and fabric to food packaging, household cleaning agents, and clothing. Almost anything that is water-repellent or stain-resistant, from sleeping bags, ski wax, and boots to certain electronics, pesticides, and makeup, may contain PFAS.
PFAS Are Called “Forever Chemicals”
The bottom line is, PFAS can stay and accumulate in our body, blood, and environment for dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of years.
Given their widespread usage, studies show more than 98% of the U.S. population already have PFAS in their blood, at varying levels—a clear and damning indication of a widespread problem that still lacks widespread solutions.
That’s why “Forever chemicals” is just one nickname for this dangerous family of chemicals. The other name? “Ticking time bombs” because they can accumulate (i.e., increase) over time and cause severe health effects years after initial exposure. According to scientists, once they’re in your body, they cannot be removed. In other words, PFAS levels only “build up” with more exposure. You can think of it like this: PFAS are “shockingly toxic” man-made chemicals that man probably can’t get rid of. And just by drinking tap water, you may be ingesting even more of them daily.
A Dangerous Combination Of Toxicity & Longevity
Today PFAS are found in our drinking water, food supply, and household products. While companies like DuPont, 3M, and others have stopped using PFOA and PFOS for manufacturing, they’re still in our soil, water, air, and homes—and given their longevity, they will be for the foreseeable future. Plus, as our exposure increases, PFAS build up in our bodies and can ultimately lead to the severe health effects outlined below.
PFAS Are Linked To MultipleAdverse Effects
Multiple studies, including the largest epidemiological study ever in human history, found links between PFAS and the following adverse and alarming health effects: Thyroid disease, high cholesterol, heart / cardiovascular issues, ulcerative colitis (IBD), liver damage, liver tumors, kidney and testicular cancer, weakened immune system, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hormone imbalance, DNA damage, increased risk and severity of COVID 19 symptoms, and more.
Additional Dangers To Women & Children
PFAS exposure can be particularly dangerous to pregnant women, infants, and children. Here are just a handful of additional health effects linked to PFAS: skeletal variations (congenital disabilities), low birth weight, decreased response to vaccines, increased likelihood of miscarriage, high blood pressure, preeclampsia during pregnancy, babies exposed prenatally can have a higher risk of experiencing obesity, early-onset puberty, and reduced fertility later in life, plus, other developmental issues.
How Do PFAS Get Into Our Public Water Supplies?
PFAS pollution is often linked to nearby industrial sites, landfills, airports, and military bases where the chemicals are used or have been used.
Not only are PFAS nearly indestructible, but they are also mobile.
The negative impacts on environmental health and the health of those living in contaminated areas are vast and far-reaching. PFAS sink into the soil and migrate into groundwater and aquifers. They sneak into surface water like streams, rivers, and reservoirs via run-off. And they can remain in public water supplies even after the water has been treated. No matter where, when, or how they are used or released, PFAS can thrive for years, if not decades, and eventually travel miles to poison water supplies and systems that provide drinking water to our homes, schools, and communities.
Contamination Is Widespread & Coated In Controversy
PFAS have been detected in soil and water all over the planet and in our blood. Why? Because contamination is virtually everywhere. Scientists have found almost 42,000 potential sources of PFAS that could pollute our water supplies here in the U.S. Even worse, an EWG analysis shows more than 43 million Americans (and up to 200 million Americans, which is more than half of the population) are now served water that exceeds the latest EPA recommendations for PFAS levels. Think about that: Those numbers are only based on existing data available to us, which isn’t much given that testing isn’t required. In other words, contamination is rampant, and that’s based on limited data and what could be conservative estimates.
Recent examples of PFAS contamination here in the United States:
- Between 1951 and 2003, almost 800 tons of PFOA were discharged by DuPont in the 981-mile Ohio River that flows through six U.S. states. This severely contaminated water was served to tens of thousands of Americans. And documentation uncovered by lawyers shows DuPont knew PFOA, the non-stick chemical in Teflon products, was dangerous (and even deadly) to humans. The events surrounding this inspired the 2019 award-winning film ‘Dark Waters’ starring Mark Ruffalo. You can read more about this catastrophe here. And while DuPont (and other U.S. manufacturers) have phased out PFOA and PFOS since, the poison still persists in our water supplies. In 2021, researchers detected multiple PFAS in the Ohio River in all 20 sites studied.
- Lead wasn’t the only contaminant poisoning residents in Flint, as well as the entire state of Michigan. PFAS were the “other” contaminants in the state’s notorious water crisis. PFAS have been detected at more than 11,000 sites around Michigan. And according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, more than 1.5 million residents have been drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
- A water treatment facility serving more than 60,000 residents in Arizona’s second most-populous city, Tucson, shut down in 2021 because officials found PFAS at more than 143x above recommended EPA levels at the time. Tucson’s water director issued a grave warning: “We know the contamination is out there … (and) we know it’s not going away.”
- PFAS have been detected or suspected at 679 military sites stretching from California to New York. And the Department of Defense recently revealed water supplies around at least 12 military bases have “shockingly high” levels of PFAS.
- At time of publication, many concerning clusters of drinking water contamination have been reported in major metropolitan areas including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, entire states including Michigan, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and several more appear to be battling contamination almost everywhere.
- The latest data from the EWG shows PFAS have been found in public and/or private water supplies in all 50 states.
PFAS, PFOA, & PFOS Are Legally PollutingWater Supplies In All 50 States
There is no national EPA regulation for PFAS in public water supplies.
In other words, PFAS can (and do) legally pollute our public water supplies. Currently, the EPA doesn’t even require public water suppliers to test for them. Meaning the problem is probably far worse than we realize.
Plus, filters at most water treatment facilities around the U.S. are not designed to remove PFAS. So if polluted water arrives, it still leaves polluted with PFAS and pours these chemicals into our homes, schools, and communities. In lieu of federal regulations, some states have instituted or proposed their own limits on PFAS in drinking water. But even experts in those states admit that the problem will persist without federal action.
Given their danger, you may be wondering why PFAS are still legally allowed in drinking water. Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA can require testing for chemicals only when they’ve been provided evidence of potential harm. Essentially, chemical companies can regulate themselves. That’s why PFAS, in particular, has such a controversial history. We, as American citizens, have to prove chemicals are toxic before they can even be tested for, then considered for regulation. And regulation can take years, decades, and even lifetimes to be instituted if instituted at all. Unfortunately, we are watching this happen in real time with PFAS.
The EPA’s Current Recommendations
Due to emerging data on adverse health effects, the U.S. EPA invoked new recommended limits for PFAS in 2016. These recommendations established health advisory levels at 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. But remember, these were only recommendations, not regulations.
On June 15th, 2022, the EPA “rushed’ to release an advisory with new, more robust recommendations revealing these chemicals are far more dangerous in water than once thought.
They are even dangerous at “near-zero” levels.
And they added recommendations for two additional PFAS, PFBS and GenX. The bottom line is that the latest science showed previous recommendations set in 2016 were not nearly strong enough to protect public health, and PFAS of all kinds, even at surprisingly low levels, can hurt us. Yet without required testing, we can’t even take the first step to abide by them. And without required removal, we must question our safety.
The June 2022 advisory established the following interim recommendations:
- PFOA: Reduced from 70 parts per trillion to just .004 parts per trillion (ppt).
- PFOS: Reduced from 70 ppt to just .02 ppt.
- PFBS: 2,000 ppt.
- GenX: 10 ppt.
Remember, these are just recommendations, not regulations. Testing isn’t even required. And these recommendations can’t be enforced by law, so they are easy (and completely legal) to ignore.
New And Alternative PFAS Lack Regulations, Too
As mentioned earlier, there are thousands of PFAS. And because they are man-made chemicals, new ones can be engineered anytime.
As of right now, none are regulated in our drinking water.
While recommendations have been established for the four PFAS mentioned above, what about the thousands of others? And what about any new PFAS? Remember, GenX and PFBS were created as replacements for PFOA and PFOS, and both have been shown to be nearly as dangerous as their predecessors. As you can see, recommendations aren’t enough to protect us. Overseeing specific PFAS, rather than all PFAS, leaves room for new dangers.
There Is No Simple Or Fast Fix
The EPA expects to propose the first-ever national drinking water regulations for PFOA and PFOS, with a final rule expected in 2023. If regulations were approved and instituted, they would be enforceable by law. The problem is, even with regulations, the vast majority of today’s water treatment centers do not have the technology and resources to effectively test for, let alone remove, PFAS from water supplies. And given the nature of the advisory, most experts agree: This is likely just the tip of the iceberg.
This concern has spread to the White House, as the government has said it will make $1 billion in grants available to utilities to help them address PFAS levels. But even with potential regulations and government funding, questions remain: Will the EPA’s regulations be strong enough to protect us? Is $1B sufficient to fund this seismic change? How long will the transition take? Will it be measured in months, years, or decades? What about GenX and PFBS? And what about other PFAS being engineered today? When and how will we be required and equipped to test and remove these toxic chemicals from our public water supplies?
How To Protect Yourself From PFASIn Drinking Water
Typical water filters produced by leading retailers do not filter PFAS from your drinking water. Even drinking bottled water may not be enough, considering many bottling companies just bottle tap water. To protect yourself from these poisonous chemicals proactively, the best thing you can do is filter your water with a filtration system certified to filter PFAS. “Certification” is third-party proof that any filter does as it promises.
Clearly Filtered Is Certified To Reduce PFAS
Our pitcher filter is the one and only pitcher filter certified by the prestigious Water Quality Association to remove up to 99.5% PFAS from drinking water. In addition, our breakthrough technology has been tested and proven to reduce nine different types of PFAS, including PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and PFBS, to guarantee your protection.
The bottom line is the PFAS already in our soil, air, and water probably aren’t going anywhere. Nor are the PFAS in our blood. But you don’t need to wait for a solution. And you shouldn’t. Protect yourself (and your loved ones) from the dangers of PFAS right now with our breakthrough pitcher filter.