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Understanding PFOA/PFOS: Protecting Your Home from “Forever Chemicals”

Understanding PFOA/PFOS: Protecting Your Home from “Forever Chemicals”

Water contamination is a complex but significant public health issue that affects us all. The detrimental effects of substances such as lead, mercury, and pesticides have been made well aware to the public. However, as research unfolds and greater regulations are demanded on drinking water safety, new substances are being studied and deemed harmful. Two such substances are PFOA/PFOS, which have come to the forefront of both scientific and political scrutiny. They lurk not only in our water, but in various day-to-day items that we encounter. 

 

What Does PFOA/PFOS Stand For?

Perfluorooctanoic Acid and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate, abbreviated as PFOA/PFOS, are stable, man-made compounds. They are formed from chains of eight carbons, and are able to repel water and oil. As a result of this propensity, PFOA/PFOS have been used in a variety of industrial and consumer products since the 1930s. Some include clothing treatments, food packaging, cardboard packaging, emulsifiers, nonstick cookware, and electrical wire casing. 

Because of this widespread use, PFOA/PFOS have ended up in the water supply. Manufacturing is a major culprit for contamination. While these processes are carried out, PFOA/PFOS are released into the water, air, and soil surrounding the manufacturing plants. PFOA/PFOS contamination also occurs in manufacturing plants that use PFAS to produce other items. Due to the fact that PFOA/PFOS can be formed from precursor substances through biological forces, this increases their presence in the environment. 

Until 2001, PFOS were also used in aqueous film forming foam. This substance is used in extinguishing certain types of fires. Though PFOS are no longer utilized for this purpose, some extinguishers are still in service. Additionally, though PFOA/PFOS have largely been phased out, there are still lingering companies who use products with PFOA-based chemicals. Furthermore, exposure to PFOA/PFOS can occur through goods brought in from foreign countries who continue to use the substances. 

PFOA/PFOS have the ability to withstand typical forces of environmental degradation. This contributes to their widespread presence in the environment and within organisms. PFOA/PFOS have been found both in wildlife and in humans. 

 

What is the difference between PFOA and PFOS?

PFOA and PFOS comprise a larger group of chemicals known and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These are highly fluorinated molecules that have been released into the environment. PFAS are particularly strong due to the stable bond between their carbon and fluorine atoms. 

Though PFOA and PFOS are both polyfluoroalkyl substances, they have physical and chemical differences. Parameters such as physical description, melting point, boiling point, water solubility, and molecular weight differ for both compounds. For example, PFOS has a higher boiling point, between 258-260 degrees Celsius, than does PFOA, at 192 degrees Celsius.1 This may be significant in companies’ decision to use one over the other when the substances were initially discovered.  

 

What are the health effects of PFOA/PFOS in my water? 

Currently, PFOA/PFOS are the most extensively studied out of all of the PFAS chemicals. Until 2 or 3 years ago, they were not regarded as a threat. It’s only been more recently that PFOA/PFOS have garnered wider attention, both in the scientific and political spheres.

Availability of safe water for every American has been a federal objective since 1972, with the passage of the Clean Water Act. However, this has proved a complex issue with pollution, infrastructure issues, and poor treatment from water plants. A study conducted on 120 individuals around the U.S. checked for the presence of PFAS in the blood. 117 out of those 120 sampled had PFAS in their systems, while more than 33% had levels greater than the recommended 10 ppt, or parts per trillion. One in four participants had more than 5 ppt for an individual PFAS alone. (To give a clearer picture, one part per trillion is equal to a grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.)2 This study raises the question of what demographic factorsage, location, sex, etc.may be contributing to the elevated levels of PFAS. 

PFOA/PFOS, as part of the PFAS group, are considered “Forever Chemicals.” This is due to the fact that they take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to break down. Because of this, PFOA/PFOS can build up in the human body over time. 

PFOA has a half-life of several years, and can be detrimental to human health. Infants are particularly vulnerable to developmental challenges due to PFOA exposure. Their exposure to breast milk via mothers who drink contaminated water, or through formula made with contaminated water, is higher than adults who ingest the same concentration. Causality in health outcomes is still undetermined, although continued buildup of PFOAs in the human body is associated with adverse effects. According to the USEPA Science Advisory Board, PFOA was classified as a likely carcinogenic factor.3

Additionally, an epidemiological investigation found a connection between PFOA exposure and high cholesterol, preeclampsia in pregnant women, and decreased response to vaccines.4 

Studies in lab animals have even shown PFAS to be harmful to reproduction, as well as to the liver, immune system, and kidneys. Exposure to PFOS is associated with thyroid hormone dysfunction.5

Besides infants, two groups remain particularly vulnerable to the effects of PFAS: children and communities of color. As their developmental processes are still underway, children may face negative impacts upon sustained PFOA/PFOS exposure. Communities of color are also disproportionately affected by PFOA/PFOS, as they live in areas that are more likely to receive a contaminated water supply. This is often due to their geographic proximity to manufacturing plants.6

One study found that nearly all of us97% of Americans have PFOA/PFOS in our bloodstream.7 This is an unsettling statistic and sheds light on the hidden dangers of chronic exposure to these compounds. What is even more alarming, though, is that there are still many gaps when it comes to testing technology and scientific data. Since PFOA/PFOS are so omnipresent, it makes it difficult to draw logical conclusions over blood results and specific routes of contact.8 Most of the general public is not aware of the harm that can be brought on by sustained exposure. Thus, the behaviors that lead to contamination are often perpetuated. More than anything, this spawns a call to action for greater regulation over PFOA/PFOS, and PFAS as a whole. 

 

What is being done to regulate PFOA/PFOS?

Given all of this data, one may wonder why more isn’t being done to ban PFOA/PFOS from our production supply, and thus, our water system. Though research is still attempting to fully understand PFOA/PFOS, a lot is being done to crack down on them. This is especially so when it comes to drinking water. 

Sources vary, but PFAS are believed to contaminate the drinking water systems of between 16 to 200 million Americans in 33 different states. There are no federal standards regarding PFOA/PFOS in drinking water. This means that public water systems are not obligated to test for them. Thus, there are no comprehensive assessments on the presence of PFOA/PFOS in U.S. drinking water. Despite this, individual states have taken action and set their own standards for PFOA/PFOS in drinking water. Seven states have set their own limits for PFOA/PFOS, anywhere between 13 to 1,000 ng/L. For reference, the EPA has set a recommendation of 70 ng/L for both PFOA/PFOS, on their own or combined.9

The good news is that between 2000 and 2002, the production of PFOS was phased out by its primary manufacturer. Since then, other manufacturers have reduced the amount of ongoing uses of the substance.10  

On the federal level, the Biden administration has taken steps to clamp down on PFAS regulation in drinking water. The president has promised to deem PFAS as harmful substances, while placing a limit for them in drinking water. He will also be providing incentives to companies who use alternative substances and spawn research into the toxic effects of PFAS. This is a historic step that has the potential to drastically change the safety of our water supply. Companies such as 3M and DuPont would be held accountable for their contribution to polluting the environment through their use of PFOA/PFOS-containing products. Over time, all of these actions combined can also significantly benefit human health.11 

Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has committed itself to two steps. It first re-proposed a statute to collect data on 29 various PFAS found in drinking water. In addition to that, it has stated, under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), that it will develop implementable standards (known as Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs) for PFOA/PFOS in drinking water. Last year, Congress amended the SDWA to require that the EPA collect data for PFAS including PFOA/PFOS with verified measurement criteria.12 

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives also introduced a bill this past spring that would require the EPA to deem PFAS as hazardous materials within a year. The bill, known as the PFAS Action Act, would also give the EPA two years to formulate national drinking water standards for PFOA/PFOS. The PFAS Action Act would require the cleanup of contaminated locations, with an annual budget of 200 million dollars for treating wastewater. Widespread health testing of PFAS would be mandated, too. 

Many public health figures and environmental activists believe that the EPA’s current recommendations of 70 ppt combined is far too high to be considered safe. The experts believe that limits of 1 ppt, for total PFAS, is more realistic and likely to produce long-term benefits. Some scientists are convinced that the window to act is very narrow, as we may soon reach a point at which PFAS contamination can become too pervasive to be adequately controlled.13

These are all major steps and calls to action that can allow for greater accountability in regards to efforts like site cleanups, as well as decreased risks to human health. With clear numbers in place, it will be much easier to pinpoint which water supplies are more contaminated and unsafe for consumption. PFOA/PFOS have entered the political arena and it is likely that they will remain a topic of contention and debate for much time to come. 

Though these steps are magnanimous and much-needed, it is important to exercise caution. Despite changes being underway, the period of time between a bill being signed to law, and its actual implementation, can be a slow and gradual process. Accountability remains an issue, as well. There are also many stakeholders involved in the situation, often with conflicting beliefs that can be difficult to overcome. Data is still under the process of being obtained, leaving many gaps in the objective knowledge base. Until greater standards are in effect, it is crucial to remain proactive and take individual steps to minimize PFOA/PFOS exposure. 

 

How do I remove PFOA/PFOS? 

As regulations unfold, there are still actions we can take as individuals to remove PFOA/PFOS from our lives. We can avoid water-repellent clothing and stain-resistant furniture, and can also cease our use of cosmetics containing Teflon. By educating ourselves on the prevalent presence of the substances, we can take greater control over their potential impact on our bodies. The Environmental Working Group has resources14 on how to protect yourself from PFAS.10 In terms of water, there’s also a lot we can do to keep ourselves safe. 

Drinking filtered water is the optimal way to minimize PFOA/PFOS contamination. It is important to choose a filter that is designed to specifically remove PFOA/PFOS from water. This can have profound effects on our health, especially given the various potential dangers these substances can pose to the body.

At Aquagear, we remain at the forefront of the PFOA/PFOS crisis. With cutting edge technology that is lab tested and designed to filter out PFOA/PFOS, our products remove over 99.9% of each of these two compounds. 

 

Resources

  1. Technical Fact Sheet - Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). Retrieved from EPA.gov (November 2017)
  2. How Safe is Our Drinking Water? Retrieved from ConsumerReports.org (March 31, 2021)
  3. Gloria B. Post, Perry D. Cohn, Keith R. Cooper. Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), an emerging drinking water contaminant: a critical review of recent literature. Environ Res. 2012 Jul; 116: 93-117. 
  4. Health Effects Support Document for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). Retrieved from EPA.gov (May 2016)
  5. Why limiting PFAS in drinking water is a challenge in the US. Retrieved from cen.acs.org (July 13, 2020)
  6. Biden administration looks set to target ‘forever chemicals’ as 3M warns about ‘onerous regulation.’ Retrieved from marketwatch.com (January 27, 2021)
  7. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). Retrieved from niehs.nih.gov (April 27, 2021)
  8. I Tested My Blood, Tap Water, Household Products, and Cat for PFAS. Retrieved from ConsumerReports.org (February 23, 2021)
  9. Alissa Cordner, Vanessa Y. De La Rosa, Laurel A. Schneider, Ruthann A. Rude, Lauren Richter & Phil Brown. Guideline Levels for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water: the role of scientific uncertainty, risk assessment decisions, and social factors. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. 2019 Jan; 29: 157-171. 
  10. Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS). Retrieved from waterboards.ca.gov (October 7, 2020) 
  11. Biden administration looks set to target ‘forever chemicals’ as 3M warns about ‘onerous regulation.’ Retrieved from marketwatch.com (January 27, 2021)
  12. Biden EPA Moving Forward with National Drinking Water Regulations for PFOA and PFOS. Retrieved from natlawreview.com (March 18, 2021)
  13. Federal Lawmakers Push Bill to Tackle PFAS Contamination in Drinking Water. Retrieved from ConsumerReports.org (April 13, 2021)
  14. What are PFAS chemicals? Retrieved from ewg.org (2018)