What you need to know about chemicals in water

What are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances? 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS and GenX chemicals. While it’s often abbreviated in different ways, the Environmental Protection Agency prefers the term PFAS. Since the 1940s, the chemicals have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the world. PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. Both are persistent in the environment and the human body, according to the EPA. Exposure to certain PFAS can lead to negative health effects in humans.

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What are the health risks of being exposed to PFAS?

Some studies have shown that PFAS exposure may affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children; lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant; interfere with the body’s natural hormones; increase cholesterol levels; affect the immune system; and increase the risk of certain types of cancer.

PFAS stays in the human body for long periods of time. Other studies show high concentrations of PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animal studies, according to the EPA.

The most consistent finding in human studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations.

The EPA has also stated that PFOA is likely to cause cancer in humans.

How do PFAS get into the environment?

PFAS are very common in the environment around the U.S., and across the globe. PFAS can be released into the air, water and soil where they are produced or used. PFAS in the soil can seep into groundwater — or underground sources of drinking water. PFAS can travel long distances through the air or water. PFAS has been found in the blood of mammals, fish and birds on all seven continents, according to the Bureau of Environmental Health and Radiation Protection.

Out of more than 60 studies, many show that children exposed to chemicals in the PFAS group tend to have high cholesterol, problems with their immune system, asthma and kidney problems.

Are they regulated by the government?

There are no guidelines set by the federal government to determine where the state EPA should test for the contaminants.

Typically, Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) are established by U.S. EPA through a multi-year process of research and testing to control contaminants and ensure safe drinking water for the public. There are currently no MCLs for PFAS-related compounds.

In 2016, U.S. EPA set a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in drinking water. According to U.S. EPA, the health advisory level was set to ensure sensitive populations were protected, including fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed infants.

What is the EPA doing?

The EPA’s work includes development of treatment options for PFAS in drinking water. The agency also hosted a National Leadership Summit on PFAS in May 2018.

What are some ways to treat water with PFAS in it?

The EPA does not have mandated clean-up guidelines for PFAS in drinking water currently. Certain technologies have been found to remove PFAS from drinking water. Studied technologies can be used in drinking water treatment facilities, in water systems in hospitals or individual buildings, or even in homes at the point-of-entry (showers or kitchen sinks), according to the EPA.

Activated carbon treatment is the most studied treatment. Activated carbon is used to absorb natural organic compounds and other synthetic organic chemicals in drinking water treatment systems. It’s an effective absorbent because it is highly porous material.

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Two other less studied treatments are ion exchange treatment and high-pressure membranes.

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