What to Do if You’re Worried About “Forever Chemicals” in your Drinking Water?

According to a new federal research, 45 percent of the tap water supply in the United States may contain at least one form of PFAS, a class of “forever chemicals” linked to severe health impacts.

Removing PFAS from local water systems is difficult – experts told Vox that the problem can only be fixed if firms that use PFAS substantially in their products, such as DuPont and 3M, reduce their use or pay for cleaning. Public water utilities must also follow laws to ensure that water is safe to consume, while PFAS standards differ by state.

“The issue and the cost and the burden of all this shouldn’t fall on communities, it shouldn’t fall on the consumer. It’s the polluter that needs to pay,” says Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group.

However, there are steps that individuals can do to decrease their exposure to the chemicals: First, people can inquire with local public utility regarding the presence of PFAS in their neighborhood. (They can have it tested if they utilize a private well.) If PFAS is discovered in their water source, they can use filtration devices to remove it.

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“The first step is the education piece of it, finding out if there is PFAS in your water,” says Stoiber. “A lot of these filters are quite effective at removing PFAS. And that’s a step that people can take.”

What are PFAS, why are they bad, and are they in my water?

PFAS, which stands for perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds, are chemicals that repel oil and water and take a long time to degrade (thus the term “forever chemicals”).

Exposure to PFAS, which is found in everything from nonstick pans to firefighting foam to outdoor clothing, has also been related to malignancies, hypertension during pregnancy, and compromised immune systems in children.

The recent government research, done over five years by the US Geological Service, analyzed tap water at 716 locations, including people’s homes and offices. It looked for 32 different PFAS compounds and discovered the highest concentrations in cities and specific regions such as the Great Plains, Great Lakes, Eastern Seaboard, and Central and Southern California.

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These increased concentrations are most likely related to the presence of PFAS near manufacturing sites and other sources such as landfills and wastewater treatment plants. More populated areas may potentially have a higher prevalence of PFAS due to the increased use of products containing these chemicals.

The study comes after the Environmental Protection Agency issued cautions in June 2022 warning that the presence of PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common types of PFAS, could be dangerous, even at low levels.

What to Do if You’re Worried About “Forever Chemicals” in your Drinking Water

How to Remove PFAS from Tap Water?

According to the USGS analysis, different kinds of PFAS can be found in varying concentrations in drinking water around the country. The first step for anyone concerned about PFAS is to determine whether it is prevalent in their area and at what amounts.

“If the person has publicly supplied water, they should be able to obtain a report from their local utility. Otherwise, they also can search the tap water database from the Environmental Working Group,” says Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Eastern Carolina University.

“If the person is on a private well, unless they are covered by a court order due to known contamination, they will have to send their water out for testing on their own. Many departments of public health have recommendations on where water can be sent for different types of testing.”

The EPA advises people to use the agency’s regulations as well as those set by individual states as benchmarks when assessing PFAS levels in their area. The EPA previously warned against eating more than 0.004 parts per trillion of PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion of PFOS, which “equates to about 4 drops and 20 drops of water in 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools,” according to PBS.

Stoiber emphasizes that any quantity of PFAS is problematic and suggests that all drinking water be filtered. “Really, you don’t want any level of PFAS in your water because it has been linked to harmful health effects at quite low levels,” she explained to Vox.

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There are several water filters that can target PFAS, however, their effectiveness varies. A reverse osmosis water filter is the most effective technique for removing PFAS, according to a 2020 study and the experts Vox spoke with.

According to the assessment, these water filters, which can be put under a kitchen sink, are more than 90% effective at filtering out harmful pollutants. According to Stoiber, the filters function by sifting water through a membrane with “tiny holes,” and the PFAS molecules are trapped as a result.

The disadvantages of reverse osmosis filtering systems are that they waste a lot of water and can be expensive, costing hundreds to thousands of dollars. According to the 2020 study, activated carbon filters can also reduce PFAS levels, but they are less efficient. These filters were able to remove 73 percent of PFAS pollutants on average, though there was some variation.

They can be employed in sinks, freezers, and pitchers by attracting PFAS molecules to carbon. While they are less expensive, they must be replaced quickly or their efficacy may deteriorate. Standard Brita water filters employ a type of carbon technology and can remove some PFAS, but they aren’t designed for this purpose and shouldn’t be relied on primarily to remove the chemicals.

When it comes to PFAS, experts agree that filtered water is a better alternative than bottled water, which can be expensive, wasteful, and potentially include toxins of its own. They also claim that ingesting provides the greatest risk of PFAS exposure when compared to other water uses such as showering, hand washing, and clothing washing. If you live in a polluted environment, the greatest thing you can do is filter your own water.

Bottled water is known to have high concentrations of PFAS. There was a case in Massachusetts a couple of years ago where bottled water had very high concentrations of PFAS in it because it was sourced from PFAS-contaminated water,” Harvard environmental chemist Elsie Sunderland previously told Vox’s, Benji Jones. “So I think you’re better off drinking filtered water from a known source.”

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