Perfluorooctanoic acid, along with its cousin perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, was historically used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial products for its protective qualities. However, the widespread use of this chemical now poses a problem for human health. Due to the ubiquity of perfluorooctanoic acid, along with its durability and mobility, perfluorooctanoic and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid are now found in the drinking water of more than 16 million Americans in 33 states and detected in the bodies of 99 percent of Americans. While this is alarming enough, these chemicals are also associated with serious health impacts like cancer and organ damage even at low levels of exposure.
But what is perfluorooctanoic acid, and how does it get into our drinking water? In this article, we'll answer these questions and discuss you can protect yourself and your loved ones from PFOS and PFOA in your drinking water.
What Is Perfluorooctanoic Acid?
Perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, are fluorinated organic chemicals that belong to the larger group of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs. PFASs include an estimated 4730 human-made and commercially available chemicals, many of which are used in industry. PFOA and PFOS, in particular, are widely recognized as being resistant to various environmental conditions and are therefore used in a variety of applications. The chemicals derived from PFOA and PFOS have been used in the following applications:
- Teflon® Cookware: One of the most well-known chemicals made with PFOA is Teflon®, a brand name for the chemical polytetrafluoroethylene. Commercially used since the 1940s, Teflon is most popularly used as a chemical to create non-stick coatings for cookware.
- Fabric and Textiles: The textile industry has long used PFOA and PFOS-based chemicals as treatments for carpets, clothing, and fabrics for furniture that are resistant to water, grease, or stains. Some examples include Scotchgard, Stainmaster, and Gore-Tex.
- Firefighting: Adding PFOA, PFOS, and other PFASs to aviation fluid increases its fire and heat resistance. As a result, these chemicals are commonly used to create aqueous film-forming foams used to combat fires on aviation fields.
PFOA and PFOS are burned off during the process of creating most of these chemicals, so they are not present in the final product. However, the manufacturing process lets off significant amounts of PFASs into the air and surrounding environment, potentially resulting in water contamination. While the majority of U.S. companies no longer manufacture or use PFASs in their processes, some still do, continuing the cycle of contamination. The main problem is that PFAS is what is known as a “forever chemical” because they do not break down in the environment. Because of that, and because they are used so commonly in consumer goods, studies suggest that almost every water source in America is contaminated with PFAS.
What Are Normal Levels?
PFOA isn't just widespread — it's also highly mobile and able to stay in the environment and human body for long periods. These factors have resulted in global drinking water contamination. According to a study published recently in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, 16 million Americans in 33 states found PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. Further analysis suggests that contamination is even more widespread and dangerous in certain areas.
Despite the widespread contamination and demonstrated health effects of PFASs, there are no federal drinking water standards for them. Instead of a standard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a non-enforceable health advisory in 2016. This health advisory put the limit at 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, individually or combined. However, without an enforceable standard, public water systems are not required to test for PFAS or treat water exceeding the health advisory. This also means that there is no complete study of the prevalence of PFAS in U.S. drinking water.
Some U.S. states have responded to this lack of federal action by developing their own health-based water guideline levels to help combat contamination. Seven states in total have developed their own water guidelines for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water ranging from 13 to 1000 parts per trillion. Some scientists suggest lowering the standard to two parts per trillion in areas that are especially heavily affected by PFOS and PFAS contamination, though this has yet to be enforced in any region.
As for normal levels in the human body, the answer depends on the individual. Almost all Americans have some level of PFASs in their bodies, but the specific levels depend on where they live, where they work and what they eat and drink. Some sources of contamination include:
- Drinking Water: Drinking water is the most common source of PFOA contamination for the majority of Americans. Although the levels of PFOA in drinking water are usually very low, levels vary based on region and proximity to chemical plants and factories that use PFOA.
- Food: PFOA and other PFASs can be found at low levels in some foods. Generally, these are foods that are either made using contaminated water or are grown in areas with soil that is contaminated by PFASs.
- Workplace: People who work in chemical plants and factories that use PFOA and PFOS face exposure to PFAS particulates that are let off by the manufacturing process. As a result, these workers can have PFOA levels many times higher than the rest of the population.
- Household Products: Low-level exposure can occur through some types of household products, though this exposure represents a small fraction of the total exposure experienced in the U.S. Stain-resistant fabrics and carpeting are a common source of exposure, as is ski wax. Though Teflon is made with PFOA, non-stick cookware is not a common source of exposure as there is little to no PFOA present in the final product.
Generally speaking, people who live in areas with PFOS and PFOA in drinking water tend to have higher levels of PFASs in their blood. These tend to be areas with high levels of industrial activity. In New Jersey, for example, 1.6 million people in a population of 6 million have been exposed to levels of PFOA and PFOS that exceed the EPA's lifetime health advisory.
How Does PFOA Get Into Water?
The vast majority of PFAS contamination happens due to factory activity, but there are several potential sources of contamination that all contribute to the problem. Some of the most notable sources of contamination are listed below:
- Factory Activity: PFASs have been used in a wide range of consumer products, and many factories have historically used them in manufacturing. When they are used in factories, PFOA and PFOS particles are released into the air, where they disperse and eventually settle on the ground. Rainwater can then dissolve these particles and carry them to water sources.
- Fire Training: Aqueous film-forming foams made with PFOA are used to combat fires on airfields. However, these foams are rarely cleaned from the airfield. As a result, these PFAS-based substances can be washed into water sources by the next rainfall. For example, PFOA was reported at concentrations as high as 105 parts per billion in groundwater near a former military fire-training pad in Michigan.
- Landfills: Municipal waste sites that contain and are treated with PFAS-based products are potential sources of contamination, as collected rainfall from these sites is often dumped into the environment without treating it to remove PFASs.
The phase-out of the use of these compounds in the United States is expected to reduce PFASs in biosolids. PFOA is stable in the environment and resistant to hydrolysis, photolysis, volatilization, and biodegradation.
PFAs in Our Drinking Water
According to new laboratory tests commissioned by EWG, perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been found in dozens of U.S. cities, and it is now believed that PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S. Furthermore, of the 44 tap water samples examined from 31 states, only one location had no detectable PFAS, and only two locations had PFAS below the human health risk level. Major metropolitan areas seem to be especially prone to PFAS contamination, with particularly high levels found in areas including Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New Jersey.
What is more worrisome is the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not report any significant presence of PFAS contamination in 34 of the 44 locations EWG sampled, mostly because the EPA only samples a few types of PFAS (six PFAS compounds out of thousands of compounds in the category), and only in systems serving more than 10,000 people. While utilities can perform these tests independently, they are not required to make the results of these tests public, nor are they required to report their results to state drinking water agencies or the EPA. This means that the EPA takes a very narrow and inaccurate view of PFAS contamination in water supplies.
What Are the Effects?
While some results are inconclusive, the vast majority of studies have shown significant adverse health effects associated with PFAS. Some PFOA and PFOS health effects are explained below:
- Humans: Several studies have analyzed long-term PFAS health effects on people exposed to the substance due to living near or working in chemical plants. These studies suggest an increased risk of cancer, hormone disruption, liver and kidney damage, reproductive problems, developmental problems, high cholesterol levels and immune system toxicity. The most common types of cancer found in these populations were testicular, kidney and thyroid cancer, though studies have also linked PFAS contamination with prostate, bladder and ovarian cancer. Some of these effects can occur at extremely low levels of exposure.
- Animals: Studies in lab animals found that exposure to PFOA increases the risk of certain types of cancer, including testicular, liver, breast and pancreas cancer in rats and monkeys. Additionally, decreased bodyweight, increased liver weight, internal organ lesions and hormonal and metabolic problems were found in study animals. As for reproductive effects, PFOA exposure was linked with increased neonatal mortality, decreased gestation length, decreased birth weights and developmental delays.
- Other Effects: While PFOA has not been shown to have a significant effect on plants or livestock, researchers have observed bio-accumulation in the wild. PFOA does not leave the bodies of most animals efficiently, so predators may eat animals that are already contaminated, causing them to accumulate more PFOA in their bodies. Top predators have significantly higher amounts of PFOA in their systems than other animals in the environment. Though the effects of bio-accumulation in the wild are uncertain, potentially increased mortality rates pose a concern from an ecological standpoint.
Because researchers don't measure PFAS levels in every region, it is difficult to pinpoint contaminated locations for further study. As a result, many of the effects listed above require further documentation and study to prove. However, many scientists and health professionals are confident that PFASs' health effects are real and pose a threat to human health and safety.
What Is Being Done About PFOA?
Public drinking water in the U.S. is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or SDWA. The SDWA specifies that the EPA is responsible for establishing standards and testing requirements, but states have primary authority to implement and enforce these guidelines. At present, the SDWA regulates over 90 contaminants, not including PFASs. New regulations and review processes have made it more challenging to add new contaminants to this list.
At present, the EPA only has enacted a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal for PFASs, which is a non-enforceable guideline. However, public interest and political demand have resulted in the EPA taking steps to evaluate the need for establishing a Maximum Contaminant Level, which is an enforceable standard.
While federal regulation of PFOA is slow-going, the EPA and concerned states have been doing what they can to improve the situation.
In 2006, in coordination with the EPA, eight manufacturers that used PFOA agreed to a program to reduce factory emissions and product content levels of PFOA. The goal at the time was to reduce PFOA emissions and usage by 95 percent by the year 2010, with the ultimate goal of eliminating PFOA usage by the end of 2015. The latest reports have indicated a considerable reduction in the use of these chemicals, and decreasing demand for PFOA has led to many companies phasing out production entirely.
Several states have also taken action. West Virginia established the first standards for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water in 2002 as a response to contamination near a DuPont facility. In 2009, Minnesota and New Jersey developed PFOA guidelines and standards in response to a short-term health advisory from the EPA. Shortly after the EPA issued a permanent health advisory on PFOA and PFOS in 2016, Vermont and Minnesota developed state guideline levels that were lower than the EPAs. New Jersey also explored the possibility of establishing regulations for PFASs in 2017.
How to Protect Yourself From PFOA
PFOA in drinking water is a significant problem in many parts of the United States, but the lack of federal regulation means that many populations are not alerted to the danger. To protect yourself and your loved ones from the potential effects of PFOA, it's up to you to take action. Here are just a few steps that you can take right now to combat PFOA contamination, including how to remove PFOA from water:
- Assess: Regularly assess your water for contaminants, including PFOA and PFOS. If sampling shows that your drinking water contains PFOA and PFOS at concentrations greater than 70 parts per trillion, alert your local municipal water systems and take action to filter your water yourself.
- Limit Exposure: While you're unlikely to get contaminated by your Teflon-coated cookware, if you live in an area where PFOA and PFOS are used in manufacturing, it may be worthwhile to take some steps to minimize exposure. Locally grown food in these areas may be contaminated with PFASs, and air and dust may contain particles of these substances. When possible, limit your exposure to areas around factories using PFOA and be wary of locally-grown food.
- Filter Water: Many modern home drinking water treatment units can filter PFASs from water, especially activated carbon and reverse osmosis systems. For example, the Aqualuxe filter from Multipure is certified against American National Standards Institute standards and has demonstrated its ability to reduce the concentration of many contaminants including PFOS and PFOA by more than 95 percent.
Learn More From Multipure
Water is essential for your survival, but if it contains contaminants, it may be harmful to your health. While researchers are still studying PFOS and PFOAs health effects, the potential carcinogenic and hormonal impacts are enough to make anyone concerned. Combined with the fact that there is no federal regulation of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water, it's essential to take action for the sake of your health. That's where Multipure can help.
If you're interested in filtering your home drinking water, Multipure's water purification systems are the best options. Multipure is dedicated to helping people solve their water quality issues with quality water filtration systems. Our solid carbon block filters are designed to treat a range of contaminants, including PFOS and PFOA. With our NSF-certified water systems, you can be confident in the quality of your water. Even better, our drinking water systems range from just under $200 to a little over $1,000, making them an affordable option.
Contact us today to learn more about how our water systems can protect you from harmful contaminants like PFOA.