How PFAS Contamination Affects Drinking Water Quality

Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT


Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.


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.

PFAS in water.
A glass of water in a backyard – Wilson, WY.
Table of Contents
  1. What are PFAS?
  2. The Environmental Effects of PFAS
  3. What are GenX forever chemicals?
  4. Drinking Water Contamination with PFAS in the US
  5. PFAS in water by state
  6. Legislation on PFAS
  7. The Biden-Harris national drinking water standard for PFAS
  8. The EPA PFAS Strategic Roadmap
  9. Does the PFAS regulation go far enough?
  10. Why we need a ban on all PFAS, not just PFOA and PFOS
  11. Final thoughts on PFAS in the U.S.

What are PFAS and what has the Biden-Harris administration done to regulate these chemicals? Here’s the 101 on PFAS and what’s been going on with PFAS regulations in the U.S. since Joe Biden took office.

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 some:

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.

See also: The best non-toxic cookware

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 are GenX forever chemicals?

GenX is the trade name given to more modern PFAS chemicals that came about to replace PFOA and PFOS once bans were in place.

While industry touts these chemicals as the safe replacement for PFOA and PFOS, the chemicals came into use before any thorough safety assessments. As part of the Biden administration’s efforts to address PFAS, researchers conducted a study of GenX chemicals.

The toxicity study found that these chemicals are just as persistent in the environment as longer chain legacy PFAS (PFOA and PFOS), and are also more mobile than their predecessors.

The properties of GenX chemicals means that they may actually increase exposure compared to legacy PFAS. These chemicals can travel greater distances in ground water and through other routes.

The one piece of good news is that GenX chemicals don’t appear to accumulate as much in humans as do longer chain PFAS.

However, studies in non-human animals now show that exposure to GenX chemicals in drinking water has negative effects on:

  • Liver and kidney health
  • Kidney function
  • The immune system
  • Fetal and infant development
  • Cancer risk.

The liver appears to be particularly at risk from GenX chemicals in drinking water.

Drinking Water Contamination with PFAS in the US

For many years, the Environmental Protection Agency had no enforceable national drinking water limits for PFAS. As a result, 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, 800,000 Kentuckians were drinking water containing PFAS concentrations five times higher than those considered safe by EWG scientists.

New Jersey sues PFAS polluter (and wins!)

In New Jersey, the state sued Solvay Specialty Polymers USA L.L.C. for allegedly contaminating drinking water with a new PFAS compound.

In a historic settlement on June 28, 2023, Solvay agreed to pay more than $392 million to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for clean-up of PFAS and hazardous substances close to the company’s West Deptford site and to compensate the public for “injuries to their natural resources.”

PFAS in water by state

The EWG analysis of tap water, military bases, and industrial sites, found 712 locations in 49 states with significant PFAS contamination. You can check the EWG interactive PFAS map to see if your local area is affected. EWG also maintains a Tap Water Database.

Some hotspots for PFAS contamination include manufacturing sites and:

  • Airports
  • Military bases
  • Sites of industrial fires
  • Sites of other large fires.

This is because many firefighting foams contain PFAS, which leach into nearby groundwater sources. Firefighters have raised the alarm in recent years about their exposure to PFAS, both in firefighting foam and their uniforms.

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.

See also: The best non-toxic pans: PFOA, PFAS, and PTFE free

Legislation on PFAS

In the absence of federal legislation, a handful of states took it upon themselves to enact legislation requiring that drinking water utilities meet robust standards for PFAS in tap water.

Some individual states set their own PFAS limits and some have taken steps to make the companies responsible for pollution pay for clean-up. After December 2022 in New York state, for example, PFAS was banned in food packaging materials.

Ironically, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) asked the FDA to set limits on PFAS compounds in their own products as far back as 2019. The FDA declined at the time, meaning that both bottled and tap water remained unregulated. There were also no federal limits on PFAS releases and uses and no obligation for companies to clean up PFAS pollution.

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.

A national standard is key to reducing overall PFAS exposure, though, especially given that food and water products move across state lines.

The Biden-Harris national drinking water standard for PFAS

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to:

  • Designate PFAS as hazardous, per the Superfund clean-up law
  • Set limits for PFAS 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 were all part of Biden’s Environmental Justice Plan. During his first term in office, President Biden made good on all of these promises, with the exception of the first (which is in process) and the second (which should be enforceable by the end of 2023).

The Biden-Harris administration proposed a national drinking water standard for PFAS in March 2023. This standard should be in place by the end of 2023.

Per the new law, the EPA will require public water systems to:

  • Monitor for six PFAS chemicals, including GenX chemicals
  • Notify the public if PFAS levels exceed standards
  • Take action to reduce PFAS in the water supply.

The EPA’s National PFAS Testing Strategy already requires companies to conduct PFAS testing, and nationwide sampling for 29 PFAS in drinking water as of 2023.

Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also invested $9 billion over five years to help communities disproportionately affected by PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water.

The EPA PFAS Strategic Roadmap

The steps taken by the Biden-Harris administration give the EPA greater power to prevent and address PFAS contamination by industry. This is all part of the EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap, which was announced on October 18, 2021, by EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.

The EPA’s roadmap acknowledges that PFAS contamination is a widespread challenge requiring a comprehensive approach that looks at all routes of exposure, not just one or two areas of PFAS use.

The EPA roadmap has three main arms:

  • Research
  • Restrict
  • Remediate.

This approach will help the EPA learn more about the impacts of PFAS, so as to focus efforts where they’re needed most. It also aims to get ‘upstream’ of the issue by limiting new contamination with PFAS. Finally, it looks to put more funding and energy into cleaning up existing contamination.

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.

You can read more about the progress of the roadmap, as of November 2022, here.

Department of Defense, NASA, and Firefighters

Per the new legislation, the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA are taking steps to reduce PFAS use and to clean up contaminated sites. As of March 2023, the DoD had begun:

  • Site investigations at more than 700 installations
  • Remediation investigations at more than 250 sites
  • Addressing PFAS in drinking water at 53 military and National Guard facilities.

In 2022, Congress banned PFAS incineration by the military through the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (Public Law 117-81). This does not constitute a full ban on PFAS incineration in the U.S. (though it is banned in NY), and the DoD could, technically, begin burning PFAS products again if it can meet certain safety targets.

NASA (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has also put restrictions in place for the use of PFAS-containing foams and has begun clean-up of contamination.

In 2023, President Biden also made a commitment to the International Association of Firefighters to provide additional resources for firefighters exposed to PFAS. This included more funding for FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG). Some $370 million was earmarked for use in supporting cancer screenings, fitness activities, and other wellness initiatives for firefighters.

PFAS-free procurement policies in the U.S.

By prioritizing government purchases of PFAS-free products, the Biden government is helping to phase-out non-essential uses of PFAS in consumer goods.

For instance, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) now has policy guidance in place for airports to reduce the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams. The DoD also has guidelines for the procurement of fluorine-free foam for land-based firefighting applications and has began reducing procurement of PFAS-containing items such as firefighters’ uniforms.

Does the PFAS regulation go far enough?

In a word, no.

While laudable, current PFAS regulations are not as wide-ranging as they need to be to turn the tide on PFAS.

As of September 2023, the U.S. is still dilly-dallying on whether to classify PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances. It is also still in the process of soliciting public comment on extending this potential classification to more PFAS. Without such classification, the government will struggle to recover clean-up costs and prevent companies from continuing to use PFAS in the U.S.

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
  • A complete ban on incineration of PFASs
  • Ratifying international treaties such as the Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions designed to limit harm from toxic chemicals

Why we need a ban on all PFAS, not just PFOA and PFOS

As with phthalate regulations, I’m especially wary of rules that cover just a select few PFAS rather than the entire class of hazardous PFAS. While PFOS and PFOA are the most ubiquitous of the PFAS family, environmental concentrations of newer PFAS chemicals increase every year and a growing body of research suggests that these are not safer than older PFAS that have been phased out.

Under the environmental stewardship program in the U.S., 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. See ‘What are GenX chemicals?’ above.

Thankfully, the EPA’s remit includes researching and publishing improved analytical methods for monitoring of 40 PFAS in eight different types of environment. It also aims to update methods for monitoring drinking-water, which will allow stricter enforcement and more meaningful filtration of drinking water.

Final thoughts on PFAS in the U.S.

Despite the significant progress on eliminating PFAS in the U.S., the reality is that we’re going to have to live with existing PFAS pollution for years, if not decades, to come. These substances are called ‘forever chemicals’ for good reason. They’re incredibly hard to get rid of, but the Biden administration is making headway.

The PFAS regulations now in place in the U.S. look a lot like those enacted by the European Union, where the chemicals strategy aims to phase out all non-essential uses of PFAS. While the U.S. falls short of a commitment to cease use of the entire class of PFAS chemicals, it’s getting close.

As we continue to wait on more robust regulations and protections against PFAS, there are steps consumers can take to reduce exposure to PFAS in drinking water and overall. We look at the best ways to remove PFAS from drinking water here and offer our top picks for water filters here.

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