Figure 1, provided by the National Rural+ Water Association
Many consumers are aware of purchasing BPA free, what about PFAS free? PFAS, known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), previously known as Perfluorochemicals, or PFCs. They are nicknamed “forever chemicals,” due to their resilience to break down and were first introduced in the 1940s. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals found in manufacturing and processing facilities. PFAS have been gaining attention by various agencies since contamination is everywhere and the substances have serious health effects.
What are PFAS?
PFAS are composed of fluorine and carbon atoms bonded together. Since these bonds are so strong, they are highly resistant to degradation. According to the EPA, PFAS are chemically and thermally stable and demonstrate resistance to heat, water, and oil (Rahman et al. 2014). Therefore, these properties make PFAS useful in a variety of consumer products and industrial processes (EPA). The most commonly studied PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluooroctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).
Where are PFAS?
PFAS are found everywhere. Some places include food packaging containing PFAS materials (e.g. microwavable popcorn and packaging with grease-resistant papers); food grown in PFAS contaminated soil; commercial household products (e.g. stain and water repellent-textiles and cookware); industrial processes (e.g. firefighting foams); the workplace; aerospace; electronics automotive industries; drinking water, and even living organisms (e.g. fish, humans). Overtime these chemicals can accumulate within human bodies and cause adverse health effects.
Why they Matter?
Due to their widespread use and persistence in the environment, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS. There is evidence that continued exposure above specific levels to certain PFAS may lead to adverse health effects.
According to the CDC, some outcomes from exposure include:
- Adversely affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and children;
- Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant;
- Interfere with the body’s natural hormones;
- Increase cholesterol levels;
- Affect the immune system; and
- Increase the risk for some cancers
In February 2019, the EPA published a PFAS Action Plan which stated, “The majority of research on the potential human health risks of PFAS are associated with oral (ingestion).” Oral ingestion is associated PFAS contamination in water, foods and food storage. As shown in Figure 1, PFAS are not necessarily released directly into groundwater, many times the PFAS end up in groundwater due to discharge from industrial companies. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), Safety Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) have allowed the EPA to address PFAS in helping with risk prevention. In doing so, the EPA can heighten regulations of the substance.
On September 23, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry /Center for Disease Control announced it will be working with seven partners to study the human health affects of exposures to PFAS through drinking water at locations across the nation. The goal of the study is to learn the health effects from different levels of exposure to PFAS. The main areas of interest include immune response, lipid metabolism, kidney functions, thyroid disease, liver disease, glycemic parameters, and diabetes. Cancer information will be collected however, due to the size of the study it cannot be “effectively evaluated” (CDC).
Since 2002, production of PFOS and PFOA in the United States has declined. Therefore, blood PFAS levels have also gone down, however as PFOS and PFOA are phased out, people may be exposed to other PFAS types (CDC). PFAS are important because they are useful and unique substances because of its resistance to heat, water, and oil. The substances also resist degradation, which is good for commercial and manufacturing use, however harmful to the body accumulated. According to the ASTDR/CDC, some ways people can lower their exposure to PFAS is by not eating contaminated fish and food, using alternative water sources if drinking water is contaminated above levels specific by the EPA or state government, and contacting the Consumer Product Safety Commission for questions about questions regarding PFAS in products people have in their home. Although much information is known about PFAS, research regarding the exposure and health risks of different populations is still underway.
The federal EPA has set a so-far non-enforceable health advisory limit for PFAS at 70 parts-per trillion (ppt) and New Jersey is setting the maximum contaminant Levels (mcls) at 13 and 14 ppt. The only other compound with mcls this low is 2,3,7,8 dibenzo-dioxin, which has an mcl of 30 ppt.
“Basic Information on PFAS.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 6 Dec. 2018, www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas.
“EPA’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, February 2019, https://www.epa.gov/pfas
“Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in the U.S. Population” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Division of Community Health Investigations. August 21, 2017
“Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. April 25, 2019
“Risk Management for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) under TSCA.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 20 July 2018, https://www.epa.gov/pfas