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Are 'Forever Chemicals' in Your Drinking Water?

water_filter_office_1By Deirdre Imus, 1-4-2021
We all depend on the safety of our drinking water, so we need to pay close attention -- and take action when needed.  

Municipal water treatment systems are designed to maintain pH, reduce organic odors, eliminate particulates, and control microorganisms that could make us sick. However, they do not remove every chemical, including some which may be harmful for which the EPA has not set safety standards. (1)

This includes PFAS, so called “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade. PFAS are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and related compounds such as “PFOA” (perfluorooctanoic acid) and “PFOS” (perfluorooctane sulfonate).

PFAS have been around since the 1940s and encompass more than 4,000 compounds that have been used in the production of a range of products from firefighting foams and water-repellant treatments to coatings for non-stick pans and many industrial applications. Because PFAS are highly resistant to chemical breakdown, they persist in the environment -- and in the human body. (2)

Research into the health effects of PFAS has intensified over the past several years. Multiple studies found significant associations between PFAS exposure and adverse immune outcomes in children. (3) According to another scientific review published in the journal Toxicology in October:

“There is now mounting evidence implicating adverse health outcomes associated with exposure [to PFAS], including reduced kidney function, metabolic syndrome, thyroid disruption, and adverse pregnancy outcomes.”

The authors emphasize that exposures to some PFAS during pregnancy are associated with adverse outcomes for both mother and offspring -- and effects can impact health into adulthood and contribute to the risk of disease. (4)

In recent weeks, these “forever chemicals” have been the subject of two important stories -- one on the PBS series, “NOVA,” the other in Consumer Reports. I would urge you to take a few minutes to look at both of these to learn more.

  • The NOVA story makes clear that PFAs are not just found in drinking water in a growing number of places in the U.S., but also can make their way into our food through the food chain, through ground contamination, and exposure to products like non-stick coatings on cookware. (5)
  • The Consumer Reports study focuses specifically on bottled water including 35 brands of noncarbonated and 12 carbonated ones.  Two of the noncarbonated waters had PFA levels greater than 1 part per trillion (ppt) as well as seven of the 12 carbonated brands. (6)

This may seem a very low level, but again exposure is associated with adverse effects including during pregnancy and in infants and children who are at high risk. In addition, PFAS have been detected in the drinking water of more than 1,400 communities in 49 states, impacting an estimated 110 million Americans. (1) In January 2020, Environmental Working Group released its own national survey and  emphasized that the problem is more prevalent than previously thought. (8)

There is also evidence that high levels of perfluoronated compounds in community drinking water impacts fertility, birth weight and pre-term births. (2) If there is any good news, it is that this same long-term community study indicates these negative outcomes can be reduced over time by filtering out PFAs in the community water supply.

Of course, filtration systems cost money. Water treatment operators are reluctant to incur costs for controlling contaminants that do not pose a threat to the community. However, it is the Environmental Protection Agency’s responsibility under the Safe Drinking Water Act to define threats to drinking water and set national standards, and the EPA has been somewhat slow to react on PFAS, according to Consumer Reports. In 2016, the EPA set a voluntary guideline of 70 ppt combined limit for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. Yet some industry experts now believe that, a guideline below 1 ppt is more appropriate. (1)

In 2019, the EPA issued an Action Plan for PFAs to guide states and water utilities in monitoring and controlling these contaminants. In February 2020, the EPA proposed regulating PFOS and PFOA, and the agency is now reviewing comments and wants to gather further information before taking action. (7)

The EPA also recently expanded drinking water treatment options for the 26 PFAS now listed in its Drinking Water Treatability Database. (7) Among the options listed for drinking water facilities, granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration systems can offer greater than 99% control of specific PFAS.

Because standards take time (and there are many PFAS not even tracked), if a threat exists in your area, consider getting your tap water laboratory tested. You can also switch to an alternate water source or install a home treatment system. Even though they may not be specifically rated for PFAS, carbon filtration options for the home include tap filers, refrigerator/ice filters and whole-house GAC filtration systems.                                                                        




(1) Felton, Ryan, “Why dangerous 'forever chemicals' are still allowed in America's drinking water,”
Consumer Reports, Updated Sept. 24, 2020.

(2) Waterfield, Gina et al. “Reducing exposure to high levels of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water improves reproductive outcomes: evidence from an intervention in Minnesota.” Environmental health: a global access science source vol. 19,1 42. 22 Apr. 2020, doi:10.1186/s12940-020-00591-0

(3) Sunderland, Elsie M et al. “A review of the pathways of human exposure to poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) and present understanding of health effects.” Journal of exposure science & environmental epidemiology vol. 29,2 (2019): 131-147. doi:10.1038/s41370-018-0094-1

(4) Blake, Bevin E, and Suzanne E Fenton, “Early life exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and latent health outcomes: A review including the placenta as a target tissue and possible driver of peri- and postnatal effects,” Toxicology vol. 443 (2020): 152565. doi:10.1016/j.tox.2020.152565

(5) Riley, Shantal, “Toxic synthetic 'forever chemicals' are in our water and on our plates,” NOVA, PBS, November 2, 2020.

(6) Felton, Ryan, “What’s Really in Your Bottled Water?” Consumer Reports, Sept. 24, 2020.

(7) “EPA Adds New PFAS Treatment Options and Scientific References to Drinking Water Treatability Database,” U.S. EPA, July 15, 2020.

(8) Evans, Sydney, et. al. “PFAS Contamination of Drinking Water Far More Prevalent Than Previously Reported,” Environmental Working Group, January 22, 2020.


13 Best Whole House Water Filters – 2020 Reviews and Guide
(Water Filter magazine)

EWG Tapwater Database
Water Filter Guide
(Environmental Working Group)

What are the Health Effects of PFAS?
PFAs in People
(CDC, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)

Action Plan for PFAs
Fact Sheet: Small Drinking Water Systems Research
Drinking Water Data & Reports

(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) 

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