Health & Science

Toxic PFAS Are in Our Drinking Water. Here’s How to Limit Your Exposure.

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Last week, we learned from a federal, nationwide study that at least 45 percent of tap water from both public utilities and private wells is likely contaminated with one or more type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), an extensive family of synthetic and often toxic chemicals used in a variety of industrial processes and consumer products.

Exposure to certain levels of PFAS is linked to an array of health harms, including decreased fertility, damaged immune systems and even cancer. Luckily, experts say there are a number of ways people can reduce the risk of exposure in their everyday lives, including by using a water filter that is certified to remove toxic types of PFAS.

A new guide created by environmental watchdogs for choosing a water filter that effectively removes harmful PFAS is available here, and more details on PFAS testing and avoiding contaminated water and consumer products are included below.

But first, the bad news: PFAS do not break down in the environment and are fairly ubiquitous at this point. These “forever chemicals” are now found in lakes, rivers and groundwater supplies used for drinking water in all regions of the United States, including about 2,800 sites where independent testing has confirmed contamination.

PFAS can be found in our drinking water, soil, air, food and in materials commonly found in our homes or workplaces, including certain food packaging as well as some household cleaning and personal care products, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At this point, researchers say most of us are likely to have at least trace amounts of PFAS in our blood.

The study on PFAS in drinking water released by the U.S. Geological Survey last week is only the beginning. The EPA and other regulators are working furiously to understand the true scope of PFAS contamination across the United States, and more government studies are in the works as lawmakers debate next steps.

In a sign of things to come, water utilities and various private industries are already complaining about the potential costs of detecting and reporting PFAS usage and pollution to regulators and the public, not to mention the cost of removing PFAS from local water systems.

Republicans in Congress are reportedly exploring potential enforcement loopholes, and environmentalists warn that PFAS polluters are in the business of passing cleanup costs on to taxpayers. 3M and other major chemical companies that manufacture PFAS have faced thousands of lawsuits and recently reached multibillion-dollar settlements with cities and towns that must now address PFAS contamination in local water systems. (The companies denied allegations of wrongdoing.)

People living near petrochemical plants and a range of other industries that utilize PFAS may be at greater risk of exposure via air and water. Avoiding PFAS entirely will not be possible — or affordable — for everyone. However, experts say there are proven steps that consumers can take to reduce their exposure to PFAS in drinking water.

Check With Your Local Drinking Water Provider

PFAS are detected in both municipal water systems and private wells, and there is an ongoing fight between public water utilities and polluters over who will eventually pay for the cost of detection and cleanup.

Your local water utility may already be testing for PFAS and publishing the results online, especially if you live in a higher-income area. Some utilities are actively installing reverse-osmosis filtration systems to remove PFAS, but others are unable to absorb the cost of removal and will not have an incentive to test until federal regulations are finalized. Any water treatment system certified by NSF/ANSI Standards 53 or 58 has filtration capable of removing PFAS, according to public health experts.

The EPA has published detailed, nonbinding health advisories for PFAS in drinking water that take a close look at PFOS and PFOA, two common types of PFAS that pose some of the greatest known risks to human health. Generally speaking, the lower the levels of PFOS and PFOA in water, the lower the risk to public health, according to the EPA.

The EPA has proposed legally enforceable limits on PFOS, PFOA, and other common types PFAS in drinking water, although thousands of less common (and less studied) types are likely to escape regulation. The issue remains politically contentious, and the regulations have not been finalized. The Biden administration is currently encouraging tribes and local governments to take advantage of new infrastructure funding to address PFAS contamination in local water systems.

Water from private underground wells can be tested for PFAS, and test results for local groundwater sources may already be available in some communities. Testing your own well is certainly an option, but may be more complicated and expensive than simply purchasing a certified filter.

If you know or suspect that PFAS are present in your drinking water, experts recommend you either filter the water or find a different source for drinking and cooking, such as the filtered water sold in refillable jugs at many grocery stores.

Unfortunately, avoiding PFAS can come with a financial cost to consumers, and the U.S. government has so far failed to ensure that everyone has access to clean water at no additional cost.

Use a PFAS-Certified Tap Water Filter

A range of granular and reverse osmosis water filters can remove certain types of PFAS from drinking water, including PFOS and PFOA, which are no longer produced but remain among the most commonly detected forms of PFAS that are known to pose a danger to human health.

Tap water filters capable of removing PFOS, PFOA, and other types of PFAS will typically say so on the label and are usually more expensive than the most basic filters. Prices for various systems range from $70 to $300, plus the cost of replacement filters. Look for filters that are certified to remove PFOS and PFOA by NSF International, which ensures that the product will work as advertised.

Environmental Working Group, a major PFAS watchdog group, independently tested a number of popular water filters for removal of 25 common types of PFAS and published the results on Monday. Brands recommended by the group include Zero Water, Travel Berkey, Clearly Filtered and Epic Water Filters, all of which removed 98 to 100 percent of PFAS. More information is available here.

Your faithful reporter and his roommates use the Travel Berkey, which removes nearly 100 percent of PFAS. This model is costly up front but works well for larger households and lasts a long time — you can filter up to 6,000 gallons before replacing the filter.

If you live in a small household or are used to a portable filter jug that fits in the fridge, the Clearly Filtered Water Pitcher is available for around $90. Cheaper filters are often not designed to remove PFAS.

Unfortunately, some people can’t afford to spend extra on filtered water, and polluters that discharge PFAS are disproportionately located near lower-income communities. That’s one reason why federal limits on PFAS and updated filters in public water systems are badly needed.

Avoid Products Made With PFAS

Experts say consumers can also steer clear of PFAS exposure by avoiding certain products containing the chemicals, including nonstick cookware and grease-repellant food packaging such as microwave popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers. Check household cleaning product labels for ingredients that include the words “fluoro” or “perfluoro” and try to avoid items with a stain-resistant coating. That includes carpets, furniture, clothing, luggage and outdoor equipment that is treated with stain-resistant or waterproof coatings.

Hold Politicians and Polluters Accountable

While consumers can take steps to protect themselves from PFAS, environmentalists say that ultimately removing “forever chemicals” from the water supply requires tough standards and regulations that are still being debated, along with years of government action and billions of dollars in funding.

Right now, lawmakers and regulators are creating policies that will determine who pays the most for PFAS detection and removal. Will it be taxpayers and consumers, or the chemical companies and polluting industries that brought us PFAS in the first place?

Copyright, Reprinted with permission.