PFAS in drinking water is an increasing concern for many people worldwide, including those in the Hudson Valley. Since research into the potential harm PFAS can cause is relatively new and ongoing, it’s natural to have questions about what PFAS in your drinking water can mean for your health and what you can do to address the problem.
Here’s a look at everything you need to know, including what PFAS is, where it comes from, removing PFAS from water, how to test for PFAS in drinking water, and how to avoid PFAS.
What Is PFAS?
PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, a class of more than 9,000 different compounds with stain or water-repelling properties. These substances have also been dubbed “forever chemicals.” Their timeline to break down is measured in hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
What Are PFAS Chemicals Used For?
Generally speaking, PFAS chemicals are used to make heat, stain, and water-resistant coatings. For example, they may be on non-stick cooking pans or water-repelling clothing. They’re also common in stain-resistant carpeting and furniture upholstery.
In some cases, PFAS are even in food packaging and electrical wire insulation. You might also find them in specific cosmetics, along with firefighting foams. Cleaners designed to cut through grease or sprays meant to encourage water beading may also contain PFAS. The same goes for certain polishes, pesticides, and sunscreens.
PFAS chemicals are not naturally occurring. Instead, they’re manufactured. Additionally, they’ve been a mainstay in specific industries and products since the 1950s. While the US and many other countries have limited the use of PFAS chemicals once the risks became known, other countries may still use them.
How Are People Exposed to PFAS?
PFAS exposure can occur in several ways. One of the most widely discussed is drinking water. Once the chemicals enter municipal water systems or groundwater supplying wells, the contamination can impact everything from a single household to multiple county areas.
Air contamination from PFAS is also possible. Some PFAS chemicals have been detected in dust in homes, which can create a breathing risk when the dust is disturbed. Other PFAS chemicals can simply make their way into the air, creating an inhalation risk.
Eating seafood that’s fished from waters containing PFAS can also introduce PFAS into the body. The same goes for eating foods grown or raised in areas with PFAS contamination. Accidentally consuming contaminated soil or dust can also lead to exposure.
Using certain products that contain PFAS could also be a potential risk. While PFAS in drinking water is typically deemed the greater threat, eating foods from PFAS-containing packages or using certain water or stain-resistant materials do increase your overall exposure.
However, it’s important to note that PFAS entering the body through skin contact typically only occurs at low levels, far less than what can happen through drinking water. As a result, showering, bathing, or cleaning clothes and dishes in PFS-containing water isn’t typically viewed as a pathway toward increased exposure.
Are PFAS Chemicals Dangerous?
When consumed or inhaled, PFAS chemicals can enter the body, including the bloodstream. Additionally, they can bioaccumulate, causing levels in the body to rise over time due to continued consumption or inhalation.
Generally, PFAS are considered endocrine disruptors. The body can mistake PFAS chemicals for fatty acids, causing it to attempt to use PFAS chemicals for functions where a fatty acid would be necessary. Since PFAS chemicals can’t perform that role, it can lead to health issues.
While research into the harm PFAS chemicals cause is relatively new, PFAS exposure is already linked to various medical conditions. Here are some of the issues PFAS chemicals may cause, based on information from the EPA and CDC:
- Accelerated puberty
- Behavioral changes in children
- Bone variations in children
- Changes to liver enzymes
- Decreased fertility
- Higher cholesterol
- Higher risk of kidney cancer
- Higher risk of prostate cancer
- Higher risk of testicular cancer
- Low birth weights
- Increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women
- Increased risk of obesity
- Increased risk of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women
- Reduce ability to fight infections
- Reduced vaccine response
Research into PFAS is still ongoing. As a result, more health conditions may be linked to exposure as time passes.
How to Test for PFAS in Your Water
Currently, there isn’t an at-home PFAS test available. Even the kits advertised as at-home tests require you to mail a water sample back to a lab. In some cases, that means waiting far longer for results. Additionally, some of the at-home tests aren’t significantly less expensive than using a local lab.
As a result, if you’re trying to figure out how to test for PFAS in your water at home, your best bet is to connect with a local water testing lab certified to test for PFAS in drinking water. Along with being a nearby resource, local labs are far more familiar with water-related issues in your area. As a result, they may be able to offer more meaningful guidance.
Who Should Test for PFAS in Their Drinking Water?
Anyone who has concerns about PFAS contamination can undoubtedly get their water tested. PFAS in the water supply is increasingly common. As a result, even residents that rely on local municipal water utilities may want to test for PFAS in their tap water. That way, they can choose the right approach to keep their water safe to drink.
However, PFAS testing is crucial for anyone using a well for drinking water. While water utilities are frequently tested for contamination, wells are the owner’s responsibility. PFAS in rainwater can get into your well. Similarly, other activities that harm groundwater can lead to PFAS in your well water.
Can You Get Rid of PFAS in Your Drinking Water?
Many people wonder, “Can PFAS be filtered out of water?” Fortunately, the answer is often “yes.” The removal of PFAS from water does require you to use the right filtering technologies
When it comes to how to filter PFAS from drinking water, technically, nearly any consumer-grade water filtering option is better than nothing. However, according to research from Duke and North Carolina State University, under-sink two-stage or reverse osmosis filters may give you the best results.
If you want to go the extra mile, you could combine one of the under-sink options with a pitcher-based or faucet-mounted activated carbon filter. Just keep in mind that specific whole-house systems actually increased PFAS levels during their tests, so you want to exercise caution if you’re heading in that direction.
It’s important to note that you can’t use water-boiling to remove PFAS chemicals from water. PFAS don’t break down due to heat exposure. In fact, a boiling method can actually increase the concentration of PFAS in the water, making it more hazardous to consume.
How to Avoid PFAS
Step one to avoid PFAS exposure is to address PFAS chemicals in your drinking water. Get your water tested and introduce filtering technologies. If you still have concerns, you could explore bottled water instead.
Also, stop using non-stick cookware that doesn’t get its non-stick features solely from ceramic, as those can contain PFAS. Additionally, you may want to skip dining out, particularly at places that rely on paper- or plastic-based food containers. If you get takeout, make sure not to heat food in the provided containers or wrappers, too. Microwave popcorn in individual bags can also be a source of PFAS.
When you purchase new furniture, carpeting, or water-resistant clothing, favor retailers or brands committed to removing or restricting PFAS chemicals from their products. You can skip clothing or bedding with stain- or water-resistant properties, as items with those features are more likely to contain PFAS. For cosmetics, avoiding water-resistant products can also help.
For cleaning, choose cleaners that are committed to remaining PFAS-free. Also, use HEPA filter vacuums, dust with damp cloths, and change your HVAC filters regularly.
In New York, you can reach out to York Lab Water Test to have your water tested.