PFAs in Drinking Water: How to Avoid Forever Chemicals


An overview of what PFAs are, why they’re dangerous, and how to remove them from your water supply


Updated: February 19, 2024
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Jeremiah Zac
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The term, “forever chemicals” has garnered serious concern among Americans in the past several years due to the negative health implications, extreme difficulty of removal, and prevalence in the environment.

Studies estimate that 97% of Americans have these chemicals in their bloodstream.

But what are they exactly? How did they end up in our bodies?

And most importantly, how do we protect ourselves from them?

What are PFAs and what are they used for?

"Forever chemicals” was coined by Harvard professor Joseph Allen as a way to describe a set of chemicals known as PFAs. PFAs is a blanket name for thousands of chemicals with similar chemical properties known for their strong resistance to being broken down, hence the name “forever.”

The strongest bond in chemistry is the bond between the elements Carbon and Fluorine, and this is the principle on which PFAs are based. Scientists discovered that this bond provides a strong resistance to oil, fire, and water, and thus, an industry for materials that were resistant to such elements was born.

In the 1940s, American chemical manufacturer DuPont began using PFAs to coat cooking pans, creating Teflon.

Industrial giant 3M invented Scotchgard, a water-resistant spray used to coat fabric, also incorporating PFAs.

This eventually led to the use of PFAs in fire retardants and for military applications.

Today, PFAs are widely used in wrappers for fast food, various types of plastic coatings, cosmetics, stain-resistant furniture, and carpets.

Health effects of PFAs in drinking water

As we’ve witnessed, the invention of PFAs has added significant conveniences to the modern lifestyle. The problem is that the chemical bond between Fluorine and Carbon is so strong that it can take thousands of years to break down.

Now, decades after the chemical bond was discovered, PFAs are being found ubiquitously throughout the environment, in city water, well water, in the soil, and even in our bodies.

Studies have estimated that PFAs could be present in the blood and urine of 95-97% of the US population. The alarming factor is that PFAs are already associated with negative health effects on metabolism and fertility and are known to cause thyroid disruption and even cancer.

Today, over 200 million Americans can have PFAs in their drinking water.

The EWG released a map that identifies concentrations of PFA levels in public water systems throughout the United States.

What is being done about how to avoid forever chemicals?

PFAs map / EWG

Public efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of PFAs have been ongoing for decades.

It started in the 1950s when animal tests conducted by 3M and DuPont, which discovered PFAs in the bloodstream, were kept hidden from the public.

The 2018 documentary, The Devil We Know, covers how DuPont dumped 1.7 million pounds of PFAs into a West Virginia water source between 1951 and 2003.

In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency became aware that PFAs are a public hazard, widely found in human blood. A slow and laborious progress toward PFA management began.

While PFA contamination isn’t federally regulated in public drinking water, many states set their own limits on PFA contamination based on studies and recommendations from private sources.

After many years of evidence-based pressure from a non-profit organization called the EWG, the EPA began taking steps to make PFAs federally regulated.

In March of 2023, the EPA proposed to include PFAs in their primary standards for public drinking water. If approved, public water utilities will be required to test and filter residential water for PFAs at a level of 4 parts per trillion.

In June 2023, industrial giant 3M announced a 10 billion dollar settlement over lawsuits from public water suppliers.

Now, the PFA chemicals used for Teflon and Scotchguard have been phased out, but their presence in drinking water still remains ubiquitous. Even with the phaseout of certain PFAs, others are still being widely used.

How to remove PFAs from water

While the EPA’s proposal to include PFAs in the primary drinking water standards is significant progress from where it once was, it still currently isn’t being regulated by public water utilities. This means that if you drink public tap water or well water, it is almost guaranteed that there are some levels of PFAs present.

Waiting for the federal government to expedite actions that benefit your health can be painful. As always, the best approach is to take matters into your own hands and purify water yourself.

PFAs are very strong chemical compounds that are extremely difficult to break down and are colorless and odorless. These properties require very specific methods of filtration in order to guarantee their removal, and the best methods for purifying water from PFAs are activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and distillation.

Activated Carbon

Activated carbon filtration is one of the most widely used methods for water purification, found in residential and industrial applications. Activated carbon is known as a high-affinity medium, meaning it binds strongly to chemicals due to the granular pores it is constituted with. As contaminated water passes through an activated carbon filter, the PFA molecules will stick to the activated carbon pores, leaving the chemicals trapped as clean water passes through.

According to EPA researcher Thomas Speth, activated carbon can be 100% effective in removing PFAs under the right conditions. Activated carbon will lose effectiveness over time as contamination builds up, requiring regular filter replacements.

One of the best home filtration units that uses activated carbon is the Berkey. Check out our full review here.

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse osmosis is the process of purifying water using a semi-permeable membrane and is extremely effective in removing PFAs. By utilizing pressure, contaminated water passes through a membrane with pores small enough to only allow H20 molecules to pass through. The result is that larger contaminants, PFAs included, are left behind the membrane wall while clean water is pushed through the other side.

RO systems are widely used in removing PFAs and are considered one of the most effective ways to do so. To learn more about reverse osmosis systems, read our article on the best RO systems for home use.

Distillation

Distillation is one of the oldest and most effective methods of purification as it reduces water back to its purest form. Through a process of heating, evaporation, and condensation, H20 molecules are extracted and isolated from contaminated water. All of the contaminants, PFAs included, are kept in a boiling chamber while H20 molecules are transported to another chamber where they collect and cool.

Distillation is one of the first methods used in desalination—the process of converting saltwater into clean, drinkable water.

To learn more about how you can distill water at home, read our article on home water distillers.



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I'm Jeremiah, the owner of World Water Reserve. I'm a writer and researcher with a particular interest in sustainability and rural living, water scarcity, and innovative water purification methods. I utilize my multimedia and communication experience in the NGO and humanitarian fields to bring light to important topics. My passion is to educate others on the reality of the global water crisis and on ways to sustain themselves and their families in the midst of it.
Jeremiah Zac