What's the Deal With PFAS? What Water Lab Managers Should Know

You may have only heard of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) because of recent media coverage. But unless you've steered clear of packaged food and most household products, you've probably been exposed to them. That's because this group of chemicals is in the makeup of many everyday items.

Unfortunately, these man-made chemicals don't break down easily and can build up over time — in both the natural environment and the human body, explains the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that PFAS, which are also found in drinking water, can lead to human health problems.

What Are PFAS?

PFAS were developed in the mid-20th century and are used in industries across the U.S. and throughout much of the world. As a result, most people have been exposed to PFAS.

While the EPA says more research needs to be done to determine the precise effects of these chemicals on humans, studies on animals indicate PFAS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects. Currently, the most consistent finding on human subjects links PFAS to elevated cholesterol levels. Other more limited studies have suggested the chemicals may impact infant birth weights, immune systems, cancer development, and hormone levels.

The Push to Regulate Exposure to PFAS

According to an article in Consumer Reports, concerns have been raised about the extent and level of human exposure to PFAS. Regulators and legislators alike have taken steps to understand these potential impacts more thoroughly and increase public awareness.

For example, in February, the EPA announced an Action Plan to better understand and address PFAS contamination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) soon followed suit by announcing plans to expand a program studying the PFAS levels in people living near military bases. In March, a Congressional bipartisan group pushed to have these chemicals declared as "hazardous substances" eligible for Superfund cleanup resources. Another group introduced legislation that would provide the U.S. Geological Survey funds to develop new ways to detect and test for PFAS.

Multiple states, including Michigan, New Jersey, and Washington, have taken measures to address and control PFAS contamination, according to the Consumer Reports article.

Who's Testing for PFAS?

Currently, the EPA doesn't regulate the presence of PFAS in public water systems; but in light of its Action Plan rolled out earlier this year, that could change. The agency has, in the meantime, released health recommendations for water tests that address PFAS levels in drinking water.

According to the EPA blog, if municipalities or building owners find PFAS in drinking water systems above 70 parts per trillion, system operators should promptly take additional samples to examine the source and extent of the contamination. They should also notify state drinking water agencies and consumers, with outreach to pregnant women being particularly important considering the potential impact these chemicals may have on fetal development and infant nutrition.

How to Address Customer Concerns

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, given the ubiquity of PFAS, it is unrealistic to expect people to avoid them altogether. If you run into a customer who's concerned about the chemicals, offer these recommendations on ways to reduce their chances of exposure:

  • Consider using an alternative or treated water source if you suspect your water contains PFAS above the EPA's designated safe levels.
  • Check advisories for water bodies where you fish to see if there are reported cases of waters contaminated with PFAS or other compounds.
  • Read consumer product labels and avoid using products with PFAS.


The Future of PFAS

As regulators and researchers grapple with PFAS contamination and its related effects, the search is on for newer, safer chemicals that serve the same purpose. In 2006, the EPA asked eight leading companies to reduce their use of specific PFAS by 95% by 2010, which helped spur the development of some alternative chemicals.

Experts point out that comprehensive chemical evaluation takes time, and given the need for accurate, long-term data, some chemicals have seen decades of use before they are considered dangerous. Given their important role in keeping drinking water safe for communities, lab managers should remain alert to public health advisories, such as those concerning PFAS contamination, in order to maintain strong service and support for their customers.

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Jeff Rowe
Writer and Editor

For the past 25 years, Jeff Rowe has worked as a writer and an editor for the nonfiction and professional markets, including researching, writing, and editing feature articles, blog posts, speeches, project reports, and magazine essays. He has published numerous articles and essays on developments in health care and health information technology, the home medical equipment market, natural resource and environmental issues, and food topics. He has also been editor and community manager for numerous industry-targeted websites, as well as author of a developing series of novels set in medieval Spain.