True Cellular Formulas Team - July 13, 2023

PFAS in US Tap Water

Assessing Contamination and Health Implications

PFAS in US Tap Water

Introduction to PFAS and Their Prevalence in U.S. Drinking Water

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of human-made chemicals that have been widely used since the 1940s in a plethora of industries, including automotive, construction, electronics, and aviation.[1] Due to their heat resistance, durability, and water and oil repellence, they are favored in the production of a vast array of consumer goods, from non-stick cookware to stain-resistant carpets and clothing.[2]

However, the very characteristics that make PFAS desirable in industry pose significant environmental and public health challenges. Referred to as "forever chemicals," PFAS resist degradation and persist in the environment, leading to extensive contamination of water, soil, and air.[3]

In an alarming revelation, a 2023 study by the U.S. Geological Survey identified the presence of PFAS in nearly 45% of tap water samples across the United States.[4] Due to their pervasive use and resistance to degradation, it is likely that the actual number of people consuming contaminated water may be even higher. With more than 12,000 PFAS variants recognized by the National Institutes of Health, the study assessed only 32 compounds, suggesting that the scale of contamination could be far more extensive than the results indicate.[4]

PFAS Exposure and Its Implications on Public Health

The high prevalence of PFAS in drinking water poses significant risks to public health. Over the years, various research has linked PFAS exposure to a multitude of health problems, including cancer, obesity, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, decreased fertility, liver damage, and hormone suppression.[5] The danger lies not only in the toxicity of these chemicals but also in their bioaccumulative nature, meaning they build up in the human body over time, potentially leading to adverse health effects.[5]

In a paradigm-shifting move in June 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued health advisories that underscored the heightened risk of PFAS to human health. The advisories were based on emerging scientific evidence, suggesting that PFAS could be more hazardous to health than previously thought, even at concentrations much lower than prior estimates.[6]

The exact health impacts of PFAS can be challenging to determine due to the variations in exposure levels, the number of PFAS types, and their evolving use over time. Industrial workers who manufacture PFAS or those living near such facilities may be at heightened risk due to increased exposure.[6]

Geographical Distribution and Daily Exposure to PFAS

The U.S. Geological Survey's study significantly enhanced our understanding of the extent of PFAS contamination in residential tap water. The study is lauded as the most comprehensive to date, encompassing both private wells and public water sources.[4]

Water samples were collected from 716 locations across the United States, with 269 sourced from private wells and 447 from public sources between 2016 and 2021. The study findings suggest that the highest concentrations of PFAS were detected in the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the Eastern Seaboard, and Central/Southern California. The data showed similar PFAS concentrations in private wells and public supplies, indicating a widespread problem.[4]

Unfortunately, PFAS's ubiquity doesn't stop at water. Our daily lives are saturated with these chemicals: they are found in mobile phones, commercial airplanes, low-emission vehicles, rainwater, and even dental floss. Their presence in household items like carpets, clothes, cookware, and food packaging makes avoidance almost impossible. Even dust in our homes may contain PFAS.[7] A 2019 study indicated that 98% of the U.S. population could have PFAS in their systems, highlighting the extent of exposure.[8]

Combatting PFAS Contamination: Measures, Challenges, and Prospects

Given the extensive health implications, stemming the tide of PFAS contamination in our water supplies is critical. There have been efforts to remove PFAS from the water at various levels, including federal advisories and utility-level actions.[9] However, there remains a great deal of work to be done.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first national drinking water standards for six PFAS chemicals, establishing strict limits for their presence in public water supplies.[10] The proposed limits are so stringent that detection of the substances in question would be exceptionally challenging, underlining the pressing need to minimize PFAS levels in drinking water.[10]

Dr. Graham Peaslee, a renowned PFAS researcher at the University of Notre Dame, described the situation as "insidious." While the issue might seem daunting, the necessity to address it is urgent due to the severe health implications of PFAS exposure.[11]

The Role of Utilities and Consumers in Controlling PFAS Exposure

Utilities play a crucial role in reducing PFAS contamination in drinking water. They need to determine whether PFAS levels pose a potential risk and take remedial actions, possibly involving the installation of treatment systems or even switching to different water sources.[12]

Homeowners, too, can take action to mitigate their PFAS exposure risk. A combination of community vigilance and individual measures can make a significant impact. It's vital for consumers to stay informed about what's in their water supply and take appropriate actions, such as installing water filters or even advocating for stricter regulations.[13]

The Imperative for Future Research and Innovations

Continued research into the impact of PFAS on human health and environmental well-being is a crucial endeavor. We need to understand more about the variations in PFAS types, their interactions in the human body, and the potential long-term health effects of low-level exposure.[14]

The future of PFAS management lies in technology and innovation. As Dr. Peaslee suggests, "We are going to have to get inventive on how to filter it out for all of our days".[11] Innovative filtration methods, stricter manufacturing controls, and more comprehensive surveillance systems are all part of the solution to this pervasive issue.

Conclusion

The prevalence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in U.S. drinking water is a significant concern for public health. The U.S. Geological Survey study revealed that nearly 45% of tap water samples across the country were contaminated with PFAS. However, considering the limited number of PFAS compounds tested in the study, the actual extent of contamination may be even higher. The health implications associated with PFAS exposure are extensive, ranging from cancer and obesity to thyroid disease and liver damage.

Addressing the PFAS contamination requires collaborative efforts from scientists, policymakers, utility companies, and consumers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed national drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals, emphasizing the need to minimize their presence in public water supplies. Utilities play a crucial role in implementing remedial measures and exploring alternative water sources to reduce PFAS levels. Additionally, individuals can take action by installing water filters and advocating for stricter regulations.

Continued research is vital to deepen our understanding of the various PFAS types, their interactions in the human body, and the long-term health effects of low-level exposure. Innovation in filtration technologies and manufacturing controls will be instrumental in addressing this pervasive issue. With a combination of comprehensive monitoring, effective regulation, and public awareness, we can strive towards a future with safer drinking water and reduced PFAS exposure.

  1. Buck, R. C., Franklin, J., Berger, U., Conder, J. M., Cousins, I. T., De Voogt, P., ... & Steffen, A. (2011). Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the environment: Terminology, classification, and origins. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, 7(4), 513-541.
  2. Chen, H., Paul, R., Zhang, Q., Baker, E., & Simone, C. (2023). Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in United States tapwater: Comparison of underserved private-well and public-supply exposures and associated health implications. Environmental International, 155, 108033. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2023.108033
  3. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (2021). Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from [link to ATSDR website]
  4. "PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) Fact Sheet." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 September 2021, www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/PFAS_FactSheet.html.
  5. Grandjean, P., & Landrigan, P. J. (2014). Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity. The Lancet Neurology, 13(3), 330-338.
  6. Calafat, A. M., Wong, L. Y., Kuklenyik, Z., Reidy, J. A., & Needham, L. L. (2007). Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals in the US population: data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003-2004 and comparisons with NHANES 1999-2000. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(11), 1596-1602.
  7. United States Geological Survey. (2021). Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Private Drinking Water Well. Retrieved from [link to USGS website]
  8. Post, G. B., Cohn, P. D., Cooper, K. R., & Perrotta, E. (2012). Occurrence and potential significance of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) detected in New Jersey public drinking water systems. Environmental Science & Technology, 46(8), 4099-4109. DOI: 10.1021/es203825q
  9. Kannan, K., Corsolini, S., Falandysz, J., Fillmann, G., Kumar, K. S., Loganathan, B. G., ... & Yang, J. H. (2004). Perfluorooctanesulfonate and related fluorochemicals in human blood from several countries. Environmental Science & Technology, 38(17), 4489-4495.
  10. Kato, K., Wong, L. Y., Jia, L. T., Kuklenyik, Z., & Calafat, A. M. (2011). Trends in exposure to polyfluoroalkyl chemicals in the US population: 1999–2008. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(19), 8037-8045.
  11. "Forever chemicals" contaminate nearly half of all US tap water, government study finds. CBS News, 5 July 2023, www.cbsnews.com/sacramento/news/forever-chemicals-us-tap-water-government-study/.
  12. Hu, X. C., Andrews, D. Q., Lindstrom, A. B., Bruton, T. A., Schaider, L. A., Grandjean, P., ... & Sunderland, E. M. (2016). Detection of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in US drinking water linked to industrial sites, military fire training areas, and wastewater treatment plants. Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 3(10), 344-350. DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00260
  13. Consumer Reports. (2023). How to Protect Yourself From PFAS in Drinking Water. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/toxic-chemicals-substances/how-to-avoid-pfas-a8582109888/
  14. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2022). EPA Research Supports Actions on PFAS. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sdwa/drinking-water-health-advisories-pfoa-and-pfos