Week 49: Health – PFAS in Your Water

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Last Tuesday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made the announcement that under the new Biden administration it would begin to regulate the concentrations of chemicals referred to as PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water. Stricter drinking water limits will likely be set for two PFAS in particular: PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid). PFAS are used in many consumer products due to the fact that they enhance a product’s heat resistance and protect against stains, oil, and grease; they are a major chemical used in water resistant clothing and other products. The issue is that PFAS, like plastics, break down very slowly and so remain in the environment, particularly water, a long time and can migrate into the air, dust and soil as well. Detectable concentrations of PFAS are detected in people, fish, and other wildlife throughout the globe. The resulting effects of PFAS on humans include low infant birth weights, weakening of the immune system, liver damage, cancer, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, obesity, etc.

According to the EPA, PFAS can be found in the following items:

  • processed and packaged food
  • water- and stain-repellant fabrics
  • non-stick products such as Teflon
  • polishes, paints, cleaning products, and wax
  • fire-fighting foam (contributes to substantial water contamination at airports and military bases due to fire training exercises)
  • chrome plating and some electronics
  • drinking water (including several popular brands of bottled water)

Even though there have been substantial efforts undertaken in the United States to phase out PFAS chemicals from manufacturing in the United States, they are still imported from many countries without regulations through such consumer products as plastics, rubber, paper and packaging, carpet, leather and apparel, and textiles.

So the question again becomes “What can we do to reduce our exposure to PFAS?” Let’s first address PFAS in our drinking water as this is likely our most significant point of exposure. A study was performed by scientists at Duke University and North Carolina State University to determine the effectiveness of various types of household drinking water filtration systems in removing PFAS. They tested 13 whole-house or point-of entry systems, which include reverse osmosis, in addition to 76 point-of-use filtering systems, which include the activated-carbon filters that we add to our faucets, drinking water pitchers, and refrigerators. The results showed that reverse osmosis filters reduced PFAS levels by at least 94%; the activated carbon filters on the other hand only removed 73% of PFAS chemicals on average, with some filters actually having no effect on PFAS concentrations.

So to answer the question above, one solution is to install an under-sink reverse osmosis filter, though these systems are much more expensive than purchasing a simple carbon-activated filter on your faucet. This presents yet another issue related to environmental justice, which it is my goal to bring more awareness to in future Green Monday posts. The fact that the more effective filtration systems are also by far the most expensive means that lower-income families and individuals will be affected by PFAS pollution much more than households that do not struggle financially, thus increasing their health care costs and prolonging their financial struggles.

Other ways that you can reduce your exposure to PFAS and your overall contribution to environmental contamination include the following:

  • Avoid any fabrics treated with non-stick chemicals such as Teflon, Scotchguard, Stainmaster, etc.
  • Avoid water-resistant clothing
  • East less fast food and microwavable popcorn (due to packaging)
  • Use stainless steel and cast iron cookware
  • Decline the stain-repellant treatment offered for newly-purchased carpet and furniture
  • Check out this link for more information: https://www.ewg.org/avoidpfas

Objective

I have a simple (or not so simple in my case) objective for this week: Avoid eating fast food and microwaveable popcorn for at least 1 week.

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