- Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are manmade chemicals not occurring naturally in the environment that are used for a variety of applications because they resist heat, water, and oil/grease (stains). Because of their chemical makeup, they are toxic at relatively low concentrations. PFAS, sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals,” persist in the environment and accumulate within the human body over time. They are found in every American household in products as diverse as nonstick cookware, furniture, clothes, dental floss, cosmetics, lubricants, paint, carpets, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, and fast food wrappers. They have been used by industries since the 1940s in firefighting foam, as a mist suppressant for metal-plating baths, and a means to provide grease and water resistance to materials (e.g., textiles, carpets, and paper). Other PFAS goods and materials are still produced and used in the United States. In short, PFAS are in the air we breathe, the products we use, the food we eat, and the water we drink. They are everywhere.
- Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are part of a larger group of PFAS chemicals. PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. GenX is a replacement chemical for PFOA, and though its chemical composition is different, its toxicity is similar.
There is a significant amount of research on the human health impacts of PFOA and PFOS which have been linked to the following: developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular and kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid problems and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).
PFOA and PFOS were found in the blood stream (in the parts per billion range) of nearly all people tested in several national surveys. However, those concentrations have decreased by 70% for PFOA and 84% for PFOS between 1999 and 2014, which coincides with the phase out of PFOA and PFOS in the United States.
- Populations more at risk from exposure are those residing near manufacturing facilities and where fire-fighting foam is used. Workers in facilities that make or use PFAS can be exposed to higher amounts of these chemicals and have higher levels in their blood. Also, pregnant women, fetuses, and the elderly tend to be more vulnerable regarding health effects.
People are exposed to PFAS primarily by eating food contaminated by the migration of PFAS from packaging, and some foods (e.g., fish, meat, eggs, and leafy vegetables) that may contain PFAS due to bioaccumulation and crop uptake. People can also be exposed to PFAS by breathing in or touching products treated with PFAS (carpets, upholstery, cosmetics, or clothing). Industry experts estimate that 20% of an individual’s normal exposure to PFAS is from the water they drink.
- PFAS have been detected in air, water, and soil in and around manufacturing facilities and in many parts of the world, including oceans and the Arctic, indicating long-range transport is possible.
The four major sources of PFAS are the following: (1) fire training/fire response sites; (2) industrial sites that use these chemical combinations in their processes and products; (3) landfills (where old carpets, furniture, cosmetics, and clothing that contain PFAS are disposed of); and (4) wastewater treatment plants (because people consume food and drink containing PFAS; touch textiles, carpets, and upholstery containing PFAS; and ultimately, excrete it or rinse it into the wastewater system). PFAS can get into drinking water when products containing them are used or spilled onto the ground or into lakes and rivers. Once in groundwater, PFAS are easily transported long distances and can contaminate drinking wells. PFAS in the air can also end up in rivers and lakes used for drinking water. NOTE: Water and wastewater facilities did not create this problem. Various manufacturers did and their pollutants slide through the water and wastewater systems. It’s most efficient to stop pollutants at their source, before they get into the environment.
Potential mechanisms of transport of PFAS from firefighting foam application to environmental media.
- Yes. While eight major PFAS producers phased out PFOA and other PFAS substances from emissions and products under the PFOA Stewardship Program with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), manufacturers are developing replacement technologies in the PFAS family (e.g., GenX and ADONA) and studies have shown they behave in a similar toxicological manner as their predecessors. In other words, they’re just as harmful as PFOA and PFOS.
- Although PFOS and PFOA were phased out of production in the United States since 2006, they are still present in some imported products. According to US EPA, there are potentially over 6,300 chemical combinations of PFAS. The most efficient and effective methods of addressing these chemicals and protecting human health and the environment include product manufacturer responsibility and stewardship, as well as clean up and remediation at highly contaminated sites. PFAS levels of contamination near manufacturers can be 100,000 to 500,000 ppt (parts per trillion) and firefighting training sites and military complexes can have levels as high as 6,950,000 ppt. For perspective, one part per trillion is the equivalent of one grain of sand in an Olympic sized swimming pool, or the equivalent of one second in 32,000 years.
Currently, PFAS in drinking water are not regulated in the United States. However, six perfluorinated compounds were monitored under the US EPA’s Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule UCMR3, issued May 2012. The PFAS monitored under UCMR3 included: PFOS, PFOA, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA), and perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS). Following the UCMR3 testing, in May 2016 the EPA issued a Lifetime Health Advisory (LTHA) recommending the concentration of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, ether individually or combined, should not be greater than 70 ppt. The EPA is evaluating the need to develop Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) for these two compounds and possibly other PFAS compounds. Action levels (AL) being discussed for drinking water systems range from 5 to 10 ppt, an exceptionally small fraction of concentrations found at highly contaminated sites.
The US EPA has issued regulations, known as Significant New Use Rules (SNURs), requiring manufacturers and processors of these chemicals to notify the EPA of new uses of these chemicals before they are commercialized. Specifically, the regulations require that anyone who intends to manufacture (including import) or process any chemicals for uses contained in the SNUR must submit a notification to the EPA at least 90 days before beginning the activity. This provides the EPA with an opportunity to review and, if necessary, place limits on manufacturers or processors who intend to reintroduce or import products with these chemicals.
In California, the State Water Resources Control Board established drinking water notification levels (NL) for PFOA and PFOS at 5.1 ppt and 6.5 ppt, respectively. Water sampling results above the NL require agencies to notify the governing body where the water has been served within 30 days of receiving verified test results. If the Response Level (RL) is exceeded in drinking water provided to consumers, the State recommends the water agency removes the water source from service or treat it so it is below the RL. In February 2020, the State Water Resources Control Board set new response levels of 10 ppt for PFOA and 40 ppt for PFOS. The State also plans to develop MCLs for PFOA and PFOS by fall of 2023.
- Treatment technologies currently available to remove PFAS from water include filtering the water through granular activated carbon, ion exchange, and high pressure membranes (nanofiltration and reverse osmosis [RO] filtration).
- Yes. DSRSD’s water wholesaler, Zone 7 Water Agency, supplies primarily treated surface water which does not contain PFOA or PFOS. However, Zone 7 occasionally supplement its treated water with groundwater (approximately 20% of annual supply) which has been detected with PFOA and PFOS. Zone 7 currently treats its affected groundwater wells by blending and/or filtrating through its RO membranes at its Mocho Groundwater Demineralization Plant to levels below the RL for PFOA and PFOS. Additional information is available at Zone 7’s website.
- Since 2013, Zone 7 Water Agency has been conducting voluntary monitoring of their water system. In the instances where contaminants were sampled above RL, Zone 7 treats the water to ensure the contaminants stay below RL in water delivered to customers. Additional information is available at Zone 7’s website.
PFAS has been used in various products since 1940s. US EPA found PFOS contamination at blood banks around the country since the late 1990s. In 2009, the EPA issued a non-enforceable “lifetime drinking water health advisory,” recommending a maximum of 200 ppt for PFOS and 400 ppt for PFOA. In 2012, EPA directs large public water systems to test for six PFAS chemicals under the UCMR3; the results suggest that as many as 110 million Americans are exposed to PFAS in their drinking water. Zone 7 did not detect any PFAS during the UCMR3 monitoring. In 2016, the EPA lowered the lifetime health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water to 70 ppt. The EPA also continues to develop analytical methods to detect more PFAS chemicals with lower detection limits. In 2018, California issued notification and response levels for PFOA and PFOS. In late 2018 and early 2019, Zone 7 conducted voluntary monitoring at all its sources and detected PFOA and PFOS in some of its groundwater supplies. Note that the detection limits in the recent monitoring efforts were much lower (for example, 2 ppt versus 40 ppt for PFOS).
The US EPA is leading the national effort to understand PFAS and reduce PFAS risks to the public through implementation of its PFAS Action Plan and through active engagement and partnership with other federal agencies, states, tribes, industry groups, associations, local communities, and the public. Additional information is available at EPA’s PFAS website.
- Completely stopping exposure to PFAS is not practical, because they are so common and present throughout the world. You could reduce exposure to PFAS by choosing to use non-PFAS products. Ingestion of household dust can also be a significant route of exposure, especially for infants and young children. Dust household surfaces regularly to lower the amount of dust in the house. There are water treatment systems that can reduce the levels of PFAS in drinking water in your home. Note that bottled water might not be PFAS-free since they are not required to test PFAS by the US Food and Drug Administration.