Learn About PFAS

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First Things First: What Are PFAS Contaminants?

PFAS are industrial contaminants whose effects are just now starting to be understood. PFAS is a broad category that many chemicals fall under — so it’s important to gain an understanding of the chemical confusion, and a few strangely similar acronyms (PFAS, PFOS, and PFOA). So, let’s set things straight…

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short, are a group of man-made chemicals used to manufacture hundreds of products. PFAS are used in a variety of industries and can be found in the environment and human body. PFAS usage in the United States dates back to the 1940s.

The two most commonly produced PFAS are perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Scientists have studied the effects of these two specific chemicals the most, but there are over 4,000 unique PFAS.

Close up as a foam fire extingusher is used.

Where Do PFAS Come From?

A variety of manufactured products contain PFAS, especially to achieve water-repellency. According to the EPA, some conventional products that feature PFAS include common items, like firefighting foam, non-stick pans, pizza boxes, fast food wrappers, cleaning products, polishes, cosmetics, shoes, and clothing.

Significant sources of PFAS contamination in the environment are sites where PFAS manufacturing occurs or where firefighting training happens. Many places where groups have identified PFAS contamination are military bases and airports where firefighters use foam to conduct drills and training exercises. The foam later washes into streams and waterways, becoming a water pollutant.

Why Are PFAS Dangerous?

PFAS do not occur naturally in the environment, but they are found in increasing amounts in wildlife, fish, and humans. This trend is due to the nature of PFAS — these chemicals uniquely repel water, oil, and stains and do not break down quickly or easily. By design, PFAS has been deemed the “forever” chemical that accumulates gradually. According to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 16 million people or more in America have come in contact with drinking water containing elevated levels of PFAS. This figure came from an in-depth analysis of drinking water sources across the country.

The EPA has set a Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory level for PFAS at 70 parts per trillion (ppt), but that figure is the subject of heated debate in the scientific community. In June 2020, for example, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection adopted new Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) of 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFAS.

According to environmental chemists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a federal public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the minimum risk levels of PFAS in drinking water should be set at approximately 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA.

Testing well water from a kitchen tap, selective focus.

How to Test Your Water for PFAS

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) collected water samples from around the country and mapped them in a useful, interactive PFAS Contamination Map. According to the EWG, as of January 2021, more than 2,300 locations in 49 states are known to have PFAS contamination. If you believe the drinking water in your home or private well could contain PFAS, it’s best to conduct a water test for confirmation.

For accurate results, you should find a laboratory certified by the EPA to test for drinking water contaminants. Search the EPA database of local certified laboratories and contact them right away. They will provide instructions for collecting and shipping your water sample to determine if your water contains PFAS.