They might be called ‘forever chemicals’ but time has been called on PFAS, the toxic pollutants that have contaminated drinking water in the US for decades. When January’s inauguration rolls around, the incoming Biden administration looks set to designate PFAS as hazardous chemicals and set enforceable limits on levels in drinking water, as per campaign promises.
What are PFAS and why does the Biden team think it a priority to regulate them? Here’s a quick read to get you up to speed.
What are PFAS?
PFAS are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and include more than 4,700 chemicals that are highly stable and very hard to break down. These chemicals are present in a wide range of consumer products including outdoor clothing and footwear, cosmetics, dental floss, disposable food packaging (including microwave popcorn bags), non-stick cookware, and furniture and textiles such as carpets that are stain- and water-resistant. These chemicals are also found in tainted seafood and in drinking water.
Sadly, PFOA is present in the blood of nearly everybody living in America, including newborns. And because this group of forever chemicals does not break down easily in the environment or the human body, the effects of PFAS can be long-lasting and difficult to mitigate.
Drinking Water Contamination with PFAS in the US
The Environmental Protection Agency has set no enforceable national drinking water limits for PFAS. What’s more, tens of thousands of community drinking water systems across the country have never been officially tested for these contaminants.
According to research carried out by the Environmental Working Group, however, more than 200 million Americans are likely drinking water and eating food contaminated with PFAS. Between 2012 and 2017, this included 800,000 Kentuckians whose drinking water contained PFAS concentrations five times higher than those considered safe by EWG scientists. In New Jersey, the state is suing one company (Solvay) for allegedly contaminating drinking water with a new PFAS compound.
PFAS in water by state
That analysis by the EWG of tap water, military bases, and industrial sites, found 712 locations in 49 states with significant PFAS contamination. You can check their interactive PFAS map to see if your local area is affected. EWG also maintains a Tap Water Database.
Some hotspots for PFAS contamination include airports and military bases as well as sites of industrial fires and other large fires. This is because of the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS, which leach into nearby groundwater sources.
An investigation by the Intercept found that the company DuPont dumped 7.100 tons of PFOA-filled waste in West Virginia in the early 2000s. These chemicals made it into the drinking water of at least 100,000 local residents and many faced associated illness and disease. The resulting litigation was documented in an award-winning movie called Dark Waters, released in 2019, where it was also revealed that DuPont suspected as far back as the 1960s that the chemicals were harmful, with their own research showing that PFOS affected the livers of dogs and rabbits.
Ironically, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) has already asked the FDA to set limits on PFAS compounds in their own products, while tap water remains unregulated and there are no federal limits on PFAS releases and uses and no obligation for companies to clean up PFAS pollution.
A handful of states have passed legislation requiring that drinking water utilities meet robust standards for PFAS in tap water, but a national standard is key to reducing overall PFAS exposure, especially given that food and water products move across state lines. A national drinking water standard for PFAS could be brought in under the federal Safe Drinking Water act.
Because of the widespread contamination of drinking water with PFAS in the US, researchers have had ample opportunities to investigate the health effects of the chemicals on large populations. Indeed, most of what we know about PFAS-associated health risks comes from people living in highly contaminated areas.
The Environmental Effects of PFAS
PFOA has been found in animals across the globe – from birds on remote islands to polar bears to animals in the deepest parts of the ocean. In one recent study, researchers at the University of Rhode Island found high levels of PFAS (both old and new types of the chemicals) in seabirds from North Carolina, coastal Rhode Island and offshore Massachusetts. The levels of these chemicals were high enough to threaten the survival of the birds as a species as it greatly impacted their ability to reproduce, migrate, and raise their young.
The most common PFAS detected in the environment is perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which is especially troubling. That’s because this chemical has not been produced in the US since the early 2000’s, meaning residual amounts have not broken down and remain extremely persistent.
This research also found contamination of the environment with newer PFAS compounds too. These have been touted as a safer replacement for PFOA and PFOS but there is no evidence to support their safety and growing concerns that these compounds simply repeat the mistakes of the past and are persistent and harmful to wildlife and human health.
What a Biden Administration Plans to do About PFAS
The US EPA currently offers only advisories on levels of PFASs in drinking water, rather than strict, enforceable limits. Some individual states have set their own PFAS limits and some make the companies responsible for pollution pay for clean-up. In New York, for example, the state is set to adopt standards seven times lower than the non-enforceable EPA guidelines. In July, NY state legislators passed a bill to ban PFAS from food packaging materials.
When Biden takes office in January, his administration looks set to do the following, as per his Environmental Justice Plan:
- Designate PFASs as hazardous, per the Superfund clean-up law
- Set limits for PFASs as part of the Safe Drinking Water Act
- Require that drinking water utilities engage in more rigorous PFAS treatment
- Support government purchasing of PFAS-free products
These steps would give the EPA far more clout in efforts to prevent and address PFAS contamination by industry. For instance, by designating PFASs as hazardous in this way, the EPA could sue polluters to recover the cost of clean-up. According to the EWG, there are currently more than 2,500 manufacturers thought to be releasing PFASs without limit or regard for the environmental and health impacts.
By prioritizing government purchases of PFAS-free products, the administration can also help push for the phase-out of non-essential uses of PFAS in cosmetics and sunscreens, food packaging, household textiles, dental floss, and other items, with initiatives undertaken by the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration.
Some other steps the Biden team might take include:
- Requiring factories seeking Clean Water Act permits to disclose their release of PFASs
- Stopping approvals of all new PFASs
- Closing a loophole that only requires the release of certain PFASs to be reported, not all PFASs
- Banning incineration of PFASs
- Ratifying international treaties such as the Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions designed to limit harm from toxic chemicals
One major step the Biden team might take is to instruct the Defense Department to use alternatives to PFAS-based firefighting foam, as well as to expedite clean-up of PFAS at military sites.
One thing we should be cautious about, however, is the implementation of regulations for just one or two PFAS compounds, namely PFOS and PFOA. While these are certainly the most ubiquitous of the PFAS family, environmental concentrations of newer PFAS chemicals are increasing year on year and there’s little research to suggest that these are any safer than older PFASs that have been phased out.
Setting standards across the board for all PFAS compounds may be a hard sell, but it could be a key turning point for environmental law and protection in the US. We’re going to have to live with existing PFAS pollution for years, if not decades, to come, but the best approach is to marry clean-up efforts with a commitment to cease use of the entire class of PFAS chemicals from here on in. This is what’s happening in the European Union, where a new chemicals strategy aims to phase out all non-essential uses of PFAS.
In the US, under the environmental stewardship program, eight major chemical manufacturers agreed to stop making PFOA and PFOS by 2015, but they didn’t cease PFAS production entirely. Instead, they simply switched from making the long-chain compounds to those with shorter carbon chains, and these compounds also accumulate in tissues and can be just as bad for health.
How to Remove PFAS from Your Tap Water
While you wait for federal and local action on safe drinking water, there are steps you can take right away to reduce your exposure to PFAS.
Step one is to testyour water for the presence and concentration of PFAS. You can do this through laboratories certified by the EPA, Department of Defense (DOD), and the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Conference (NELAC). This page has more information on testing for PFAS, which can cost several hundred dollars (some local governments have programs to subsidize testing, so check before buying a kit).
Once you know your results, or if you just want to be proactive, the next step is to install an activated carbon filter or reverse osmosis filtration system for your whole home. Once you have one of these systems installed, check both the water entering your home supply and the treated water periodically to make sure the system is and continues to be effective.
If this post has you thinking more about how you filter your water, be sure to check out the best whole home water filtration systems.