What Are PFAS?

Humankind has a toxic, co-dependent relationship with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are synthetic compounds made up of several carbon-fluorine bonds that are indestructible, unreactive, highly stable, and the strongest chemical bonds in nature. These compounds have been nicknamed ‘forever chemicals’ due to their resistance to water, oil, and natural degradation processes. PFAS are a class of over 6,000 compounds and counting, as new forever chemicals continue to be synthesized. PFOA and PFOS are the most commonly studied and tested contaminants in the class and have been “voluntarily phased out by industry” in the United States due to toxicity concerns and widespread contamination. PFAS are found in most Americans’ blood (99.9%) and drinking water (estimated 110 million+ Americans). Industry has created several replacements for PFOA and PFOS they deem as safe alternatives, including GenX and perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS). However, EPA toxicity assessments found a link between exposure to GenX and PFBS and several adverse health outcomes.

Why Are PFAS Useful?

The chemical properties of PFAS directly relate to their utility in the modern world and toxicity in the natural world (structure determines function). The durability, slipperiness, and persistence of these forever chemicals make cookware non-stick, furniture stain-resistant, outdoor gear waterproof, food wrappers grease-proof, and firefighting foams effective. Common PFAS-laced consumer products include non-stick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, fish, dental floss, makeup, chocolate cake, surgical gowns, cell phones, eyeglasses, and tennis rackets.

How Are Humans Exposed to PFAS?

Humans are exposed through the consumption of food, air, drinking water, breast milk, and the use of consumer products containing or contaminated by PFAS. Once in the body, PFAS bind to albumin, a human blood protein. This allows PFAS to bioaccumulate in blood and circulate throughout the body. Some communities have extremely high PFAS levels in their blood due to the consumption of contaminated drinking water and/or proximity to a PFAS contamination site. Typical sites include airports, naval bases, and manufacturing facilities. In 1996, the discovery of a contaminated site in Parkersburg, WV (before PFAS contamination was public knowledge) sparked whistleblower Robert Bilott’s 22-year ongoing legal battle with DuPont and the EPA over PFAS contamination. Since that time, several hundred litigation proceedings surrounding forever chemicals in drinking water have ballooned against chemical companies (particularly 3M and DuPont’s spinoff Teflon company ‘Chemours’), water utilities, the federal government, and state governments (to name a few). 

What Are the Health Impacts of PFAS Exposure?

Alongside phthalates, parabens, bisphenol A (BPA), and triclosan, PFAS are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Even at low levels, EDCs act during vulnerable periods of human development, impacting the neuroendocrine system and reproduction. Studies have found a relationship between exposure to EDCs and obesity, diabetes, and hormone-sensitive cancers.

According to the CDC, research suggests that high levels of some PFAS in humans may lead to “increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, small decreases in infant birth weights, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.” PFAS exposure is toxic to wildlife as well. 

Thanks to a major epidemiological study of a highly PFOA-contaminated community, we know a great deal about the health impacts of PFOA exposure. PFOA, also known as C-8, has been linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and preeclampsia. Researchers and health professionals are still learning and studying the health impacts of particular PFAS and mixtures of PFAS, as new compounds continue to be synthesized.

Do PFAS Break Down in the Environment?

PFOA was first produced in 1947 by 3M. PFAS are manufactured through electrochemical fluorination and telomerization and do not exist naturally. These compounds are synthetically and environmentally persistent and exist in nature for centuries before breaking down, as they are resistant to most natural degradation processes.

Are PFAS Regulated?

PFAS are not federally regulated, and the federal government has been slow to act. In 2019, the EPA issued its first PFAS Action Plan that outlined its intention to begin to identify, address, and clean up PFAS contamination, scale-up research efforts, and consider federally regulating PFOA and PFOS in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Many states have stepped up in the absence of federal leadership, particularly Michigan and New Jersey. State activity has been inconsistent and difficult to track, as states face barriers and restrictions that make it challenging to create guidelines.

Am I Drinking Contaminated Water?

Free resources are available to help determine if your drinking water is contaminated, or if you live near a contaminated site. Alternatively, local water utilities can provide current information. If you are concerned about your water and have the funds, consider installing an in-home water filtration system. A Brita or PUR pitcher filter will not remove PFAS from drinking water. Effective filters must be plugged into an outlet and serviced over time. Reverse osmosis systems are the most effective, followed by granular activated carbon absorption (GAC). The National Sanitation Foundation has independently tested filtration systems and lists 77 products that can reduce PFAS in drinking water.

Looking Forward

Several communities have taken advantage of Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (DWSRF) to install GAC filtration technology at their water treatment facilities. Additional funding is required to increase the accessibility and efficacy of filtration systems for communities facing water contamination. Ensuring that financial status does not determine a community’s access to clean water and investing in innovative technologies is at the core of Blue Access’ approach to address the global water crisis.