The Health Dangers of PFAS Contamination

The Health Dangers of PFAS Contamination

There’s a newly emerging concern about the quality of tap water throughout the country, but the problem itself has been around for decades. It’s not lead, although that’s still a growing issue for several major water supplies due to poor or outdated infrastructures. It’s not chromium-6, the chemical that led to the “Erin Brokovich” lawsuit and is still present in unsafe levels in tap water nationwide. It’s PFAS that have entered the mainstream conversation regarding contaminants found in the water we drink. 

PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are highly toxic, man-made chemicals that are found in multiple sources, including public water systems, that can lead to adverse health effects. These chemicals are designed to be resistant for the materials they’re used for, which means they don’t break down and when ingested can accumulate over time. They’ve been dubbed the “forever chemicals” as a result.

A 2016 Harvard research project found that approximately six million Americans were drinking water contaminated with PFAS that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recommendation. Among the list of known health dangers of PFAS contamination are: 

  • Negative effects on the immune system
  • Thyroid hormone disruption
  • Increased risk of certain cancers (kidney, liver, and testicular)
  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones
  • Low infant birth weights
  • Decrease in a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
  • Increase in a woman’s blood pressure during pregnancy

These chemicals have been present in drinking water for well over half a century, but have garnered attention more recently with regards to the January 2020 report issued by the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) research team. The report estimates up to 110 million Americans across 49 states and over 712 locations could have drinking water contaminated with PFAS.

It’s also the central storyline of the 2019 film Dark Waters, a retelling of the beginning of the DuPont lawsuits regarding the mishandling of PFAS contamination. The initial lawsuit resulted in the release of an 852-page CDC report in 2018 that showed the link between 14 different PFAS and thyroid disease, liver damage, cancer, and birth defects. Various other studies and research programs have supported the purported health dangers of PFAS contamination, particularly with exposure to PFOA. 

PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is one of the most commonly detected chemicals as part of the PFAS group. It’s been used worldwide in industrial settings as a surfactant. When used in Teflon, for example, PFOA was what prevented anything from sticking. The National Toxicology Program conducted a study that revealed clear evidence of carcinogenic activity, specifically liver cancer, following PFOA exposure.

With nearly 5,000 types of PFAs, new studies and research are emerging all the time. A 90-page report published by the Michigan PFAS Science Advisory Panel summarized studies performed by the C8 Science Panel and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registries (ATSDR) that support evidence that PFAS exposure could also lead to: 

  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Obesity
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders 
  • Liver disease
  • Thyroid disease

One of the biggest concerns is that when PFAS are ingested or absorbed in the body, they begin to accumulate and stay forever. These chemicals appear in various forms, which means there’s likelihood of contact from different sources. Most Americans have been in contact with PFAS in some way, shape, or form. Any negative health effects depend on how long a person’s been exposed to these chemicals and how much has been ingested over the course of their lifetime. 


Where Are PFAs Found?

There are several known sources of PFAS with research showing that contaminated drinking water is a primary source. The EPA’s recommended lifetime limit for PFAS is set at 70 parts per trillion, which research has shown is too high to not be considered harmful to human health. Additionally, such a limit is not enforceable to public drinking water systems. Each city is encouraged to follow these guidelines, but water checks and improvements are made on an unregulated basis.

There’s risk from surface water, such as lakes or ponds, as well as groundwater where water is largely used by military bases. In addition to water sources, PFAS are also found in food packaging, household cleaning products, stain- and water-repellent fabrics, and certain workplaces, such as production facilities. Since PFAS are considered “forever chemicals,” the buildup can lead to overexposure over time even if water systems perform more stringent and consistent testing on a community’s drinking water.

The last nationwide water testing performed by the EPA was in 2015 and not all chemicals that fall within the category have been tested or will be eliminated in full anytime soon. The health dangers of PFAS contamination coincides with the lead contamination that has affected states for the past several years as well. The growing number of problems is discouraging people from ever wanting to drink from the tap.


PFAS and Lead Limit Availability of Clean Water Solutions

PFAS doesn’t stand alone as a deterrent to drinking tap water. Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey are two areas that have received national attention due to their drinking water crises. Elevated levels of lead have been found in water systems and pipes that have deemed the cities’ drinking water non-potable. 

In Flint, the EPA found dangerous levels of lead and presence of E.coli in the water following the construction of a new pipeline that resulted in the city relying on the Flint River as the main water source. Too much lead consumption can lead to heart and kidney health problems and may result in impaired cognition and behavioral disorders in children, among other adverse effects.

A similar problem was reported in the city of Newark in 2017. Increased levels of lead were detected in the water supply, which led to the distribution of bottled water and water filters to households throughout the city, although these solutions weren’t as effective as planned. It was confirmed in a later report that at least 25 percent of the distributed water filters were not properly installed or maintained. As for the use of plastic bottles, there is already an inherent threat that comes from their chemicals and harm to the environment.

These are only two examples of the level of problems millions of Americans are facing in terms of access to drinkable water free of contaminants. In some cases, the problems and proposed plans are made widely public, but in others, threats haven’t been detected or revealed. This in combination with the chance of overexposure to PFAS is leaving people without a source of (or trust in) clean, drinkable water. Due to aging water systems and outdated testing protocols, poorly functioning water filters, and the harm that comes with turning to single-use plastic water bottles, many communities are struggling to find a viable solution.


Why Plastic Water Bottles Aren’t the Answer

Billions of plastic water bottles are sold every year due to the convenience and allure of drinking purified water. However, not all bottled water goes through the same process and the chemicals that leach from plastic overshadow any benefits it has. Additionally, many states mandate against the use of single-use plastic. Cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles are banning the sale of single-use plastic water bottles at their airports. 

Like with PFAS and lead contamination, plastic water bottles aren’t healthy for consumption for humans or the environment. It takes up to 1,000 years for plastic to naturally decompose and as it does, toxic chemicals are leaked into the air. The majority of plastic waste ends up in the oceans, which causes harm to wildlife and ecosystems. Turning to plastic water bottles as a daily source of hydration is not sustainable and it still poses plenty of dangers on its own. 


Rely on Highly Purified Water to Maintain Wellness

Many municipalities do not have the funds or resources to conduct consistent testing or replace corroded water systems. Although the EPA establishes minimum standards to protect tap water, each city is solely responsible for the frequency and thoroughness of their water assessments. Water may meet the EPA measurements, but can still contain PFAS and other chemicals at high rates. 

With new reports continuously emerging regarding the unsafe condition of tap water throughout different areas of the country, it’s difficult to feel confident in the potability of the water coming out of the faucet. Since one of the highest sources of PFAS and lead is through water systems, people want to drink water without the threat of any lurking contaminants. 

With the technology of a purified water system like FloWater, 99 percent of all chemicals, pesticides, bacteria, and other contaminants that make its way into tap water are removed. There are seven steps of the filtration process to ensure the removal of all associated tastes and odors, as well as add back essential nutrients to maintain the pH level and electrolytes to benefit healthy body functioning. 

The final result is purified water that doesn’t require the use of plastic bottles and removes the presence of chemicals that are presently found in a growing number of public water systems. It allows people access to healthy, great-tasting water at all times by transforming the sources already available to them into something worth drinking.