What is PFAS in Drinking Water?

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You’re probably not familiar with the name PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl substances. But chances are, you’re regularly exposed to PFAS without knowing – you might consume many types of PFAS by eating food containing the chemical or drinking it in your water.

PFAS are not currently regulated by the national primary drinking water regulations set by the EPA, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still a major problem in groundwater sources.

Search for PFAS on Google and you’ll find a whole lot of nothing (unless scholarly articles are your thing). It’s hard to come by an easily digestible guide on PFAS that the average person could read and understand.

In this article, I’ve decoded the difficult stuff and produced a simple-to-understand guide about PFAS chemicals in drinking water – what they are, the health risks of exposure to PFAS, and most importantly, how to remove them from water.

💡 What Are PFAS, PFOS and PFOA Exactly?

Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), is the name used to refer to a class of more than 4,000 individual chemicals, with strong carbon-fluorine bonds, that have been used in food and industrial technologies for nearly 100 years.

This group of man-made chemicals was often used by companies in many states to produce consumer products like food packaging, cookware products and stain repellents. Some of the most common sources of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are factories, airports and certain military bases.

As well as being included in certain products, materials and packaging, PFAS chemicals are also released as a byproduct of commercial production, where over time, they can leave facilities and accumulate in the air, dust, the soil and our surface water supply in local areas – including drinking water sources. They can persist in the environment for a long time, making public exposure highly probable.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)

PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid, is one of the hazardous PFAS chemicals. When it was first discovered, PFOA was used for the production of a wide range of consumer products and materials, including non stick kitchenware, food packaging, paints, paper, stain repellents, carpets, cleaning products and water-resistant clothing.

But in recent decades, when the health effects of PFOAs came to light, these perfluorooctanoic acid chemicals have been banned globally and are now widely regulated in an attempt to limit levels of exposure. With that said, despite PFOA not being used in the manufacturing of products anymore, it can still pollute the environment for a long time, including contamination of the air, soil and bodies of water.

Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)

PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, is the second PFAS chemical that has been voluntarily limited or phased out since the early 2000s due to pressure from the EPA. Again, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid has proved useful in a variety of products because of its ability to repel water, oil and stains. As well as being used in industry manufacturing facilities, such as in making food packaging, carpets and nonstick cookware, these persistent toxic substances are also released during industrial processes, and are often used by manufacturers in firefighting foams.

As with PFOAs, the majority of uses of PFOS in major facilities are now no longer allowed – a decision by the EPA based on the dangers of this chemical’s toxic bioaccumulation properties. However, because it’s known as a “forever chemical”, it still affects the environment over a long period of time, such as the air and water sources, especially with the disposal of these consumer products resulting in environmental pollution.

Related: Complete list of products with PFAs

pfas forever chemicals in municipal water

🩺 Potential Health Risks Associated with Forever Chemicals

If you’re a dedicated news follower, you may have seen that PFAS chemicals in clean drinking water supplies can result in a number of different health effects. The biggest problem with even low levels of PFAS compounds is that there’s evidence that they can stick around over a long time, and human bodies can’t expel these chemicals, which means they can gradually build up to dangerous levels.

Some of the potential adverse health risks associated with exposure to PFAS chemicals include the following:

Immune System Effects

Scientific studies conducted on humans and animals have provided evidence that suggests that, when exposed to PFAS, the immune system may be negatively affected. Some studies have linked PFAS exposure, either through eating food (such as fish containing PFAS) or drinking water, to potentially reduced antibody responses to vaccines, and research suggests that exposure to PFAS compounds may reduce our resistance to infectious disease. Worryingly, studies have shown that being exposed to PFAS may also put you more at risk of contracting COVID 19, or being unable to effectively produce antibody responses to vaccines, although more research must be carried out to confirm this theory.


In new animal studies, another of the common PFAS health effects in the United States has been linked to cancer. Being exposed to lower amounts of PFAS drinking water could cause tumors, with data suggesting that PFAS contamination could be carcinogenic to the human body. In particular, scientific studies suggest that higher than standard levels of PFAS contamination could increase the risk of cancers that include testicular, liver and kidney cancer, and other chronic conditions.

Low Birth Weight of Infants

High concentrations of PFAS have been shown in studies to affect birth rate in the human population, and may be linked to preterm birth and small-for-gestational-age. In one study, scientists found a link between PFAS and development in children, with data finding that when the parent or parents had higher than standard levels of PFAS in their blood, it was shown to affect growth rate of the child for the first two years of life. PFAS can also affect a woman’s chance of getting pregnant.

Thyroid Hormone Disruption

Research has found that particularly concerning the health effect of PFOA & PFOS in the blood is their potential to disrupt endocrine function and even impair the thyroid. Thyroid hormones are needed for brain development, behavior and cognitive functions, especially in children, and a number of studies state that being exposed to PFAS may have harmful effects on thyroid cells, including “accumulation, cytotoxicity, genotoxicity, interference with TH synthesis, TPO function, and iodine uptake”. The effects of PFAS on natural hormone control are estimated to last into adulthood.

Increased Cholesterol

A CDC report referencing research on the effects of PFAS in humans in areas across the United States suggests that the chemicals are linked to increased cholesterol levels, although more information is needed to show longer-term evidence of this.

🤔 How Do PFAS Chemicals Get Into Drinking Water?

What is PFAS in water? We may be exposed to PFAS in a number of different ways, but PFAS contamination is particularly common in water. If you live in a community where PFOA & PFOS have accumulated in your drinking water supplies, it’s likely that such contamination will be localized and linked to a specific cause.

For instance, if you live near a factory that produces PFAS or uses this chemical to manufacture products such as food packaging, you’re more likely to have contaminated water, as PFAS may be released into the atmosphere or dumped, making it capable of leaching into groundwater sources. Additionally, if you live near an airfield, oil refinery or military base, or a location where PFAS were used in firefighting foam, you’re also more likely to have PFAS contaminated water.

You might assume that PFOA and PFOS would be thoroughly removed during water treatment, but in 2016, a research team found at least six million Americans were drinking water that contained a level of PFAS that exceeded the EPA’s public health recommendations in the United States.

Products that contain PFAs

🧪 How Can I Tell if My Drinking Water is Contaminated?

What is PFAS contamination, exactly? All types of PFOA and PFOS are typically odorless and tasteless. They’re also invisible to the human eye, which means you won’t be able to see from looking whether your water sources contain PFAS.

For this reason, the best way to tell if your drinking water systems contain PFAS is to test for the chemicals. Once you know what level of PFOA and PFOS chemicals are in your tap water, you can take action, deciding on the best PFAS water treatment option for removing them.

A quick Google search will bring up a selection of state-certified laboratories in your local area that can test your drinking water for PFOA and PFOS.

A laboratory usually requires that you collect a sample of the drinking water you’re currently using and send it to them in a sealed container. Once your water has been tested, the laboratory will provide you with a detailed report that states all the necessary information, including the level of PFAS in PPT (parts per trillion), so you know exactly what water quality you’re dealing with.

You can get your water tested specifically for PFOA or PFAS, though it usually makes the most sense to get testing for both of these chemical contaminants. You might also need to get the water in your wells studied for a list of many additional contaminants, such as lead, sulfur, and bacteria. This information is particularly important if your household gets its water from a well.

Note that you may have seen items called testing kits advertised online that claim to detect a list of PFAS. While using these may work to tell you a bit about your water’s quality, including whether your water source contains PFAS, there’s not much science behind them, so they can’t tell you exactly how clean or unclean your water is.

We tested Cyclopure’s PFAs test kit, read our review here.

🚱 What is the Federal Limit for PFAS in Drinking Water?

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has made a public health advisory to provide a margin of protection from both PFOA and PFOS, and says that these chemicals must not exceed 70 ppt, or parts per trillion, in public water systems.

You can find out more about the EPA and its health advisories, plus stay up to date with industry news, by visiting the EPA website.

The EWG, or the Environmental Working Group, doesn’t agree with the EPA. It has an advisory level of much lower limits for PFAS compared to the Protection Agency.

The activist group’s standard proposal says that any public water sample that has more than 1 part per trillion may be harmful to the human body. This advisory came after the EWG studied PFAS in both humans and waters.

Some U.S states and government bodies have also bypassed the EPA and set their own lower limits to regulate the levels of PFAS in contaminated water. These states have implemented their own enforceable maximum contaminant levels for their communities, which are typically less than the recommended limits suggested by the EPA for the levels of PFAS in drinking water.

You can find out the maximum contaminant regulations set by your own state for the safe PPT levels of PFAS – see your state’s department of health website for more info.

✅ What Should I Do if My Water is Contaminated With PFAS?

If testing has detected high levels of PFOA and PFOS chemicals in your water, scientific advice says that you should act straight away and get your water treated – and it’s better not to be last-minute about it.

The first thing to do is switch to bottled water immediately to avoid the adverse health effects of this chemical. If you think your health is at risk, arrange for a checkup with your local doctor.

Even if testing has found that your water systems have relatively low levels of PFAS chemicals, you may still be adverse to drinking from this water source.

Remember, the guidelines produced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been contested by the EWG, which says that we should be drinking far less than the recommended level of these chemicals in our water.

One of the most effective means of removing PFAS from drinking water is to use reverse osmosis technology. These systems are manufactured to follow a number of specific phased filtration steps, and use filters including pre-sediment filters, activated carbon filters, and reverse osmosis

While PFAS are chemicals that are typically quite hard to remove, a reverse osmosis system is effective enough to remove them – along with up to 99% of all other TDS (total dissolved solids) in drinking water, providing the ideal end result.

Carbon filters alone are also capable of reducing PFAS to a safe concentration in your drinking water. They’re cheaper to use, too, and won’t break the bank like a reverse osmosis system can.

Related: Do Berkey filters remove PFAS?

However, these tend to be manufactured to address chlorine and lead removal, so they may not be as effective for using treated water as combined RO filtration with an additional RO membrane to increase performance ability.

You can check that carbon filters and RO technology can remove PFAS by looking for an NSF 53 certification. This means the product has been tested by a globally recognized independent third-body and deemed capable of removing contaminants that cause or have potential to cause adverse health effects.

It’s important to take action if you have detected higher-than-normal levels of PFAS in your water with testing. Choosing to use the right filter technology to use for treatment will help you to stay safe in the long run – remember that PFAS can accumulate in your blood over your lifetime.

❔ Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Find Out More About PFAS In My Water?

Contact your local department of health or search for your state’s department of health on Google. There may be online resources that can make you more aware of your home town’s PFAS levels. If you can’t find anything, you should be able to email or call a representative of your local department for more information.

How Can I Protect My Family From PFAS?

The most effective way to protect your family is to act fast – stop drinking from your water source if it contains a higher than average amount of PFAS and make a plan of action going forward. There are thousands of options available if you’re looking to choose from a variety of current water treatment solutions from trusted manufacturers for yourself and others in your household. It’s also wise to monitor your area’s natural PFAS levels and make sure you’re made aware if these levels rise.

  • Jennifer Byrd
    Water Treatment Specialist

    For 20+ years, Jennifer has championed clean water. From navigating operations to leading sales, she's tackled diverse industry challenges. Now, at Redbird Water, she crafts personalized solutions for homes, businesses, and factories. A past Chamber President and industry advocate, Jennifer leverages her expertise in cutting-edge filtration and custom design to transform water concerns into crystal-clear solutions.

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