America’s water quality just went from bad to worse with the discovery of PFAS contamination. So-called forever chemicals, PFAS in drinking water are a health and an environmental nightmare.
What are these ubiquitous compounds, and should you be worried about them in your water supply? We’ll show you how to remove PFAS from water and more in this comprehensive guide.
What Are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are an extensive group of man-made chemicals. Developed in the 1930, they were widely used in the 1960s, -70s and -80s to make a broad range of industrial and consumer products more durable and user-friendly.
PFAS are found in:
- Food packaging
- Non-stick pots, pans and utensils
- Stain repellents for clothing, carpet and furniture
- Personal care products, including nail polish and cosmetics
- Fire-fighting foams and more
How Do PFAS Get into the Drinking Water Supply?
The four primary sources of PFAS contamination are:
- Emergency response sites where firefighting foam was used
- Wastewater treatment facilities
Most commonly found in surface water and soil near affected areas, PFAS can travel long distances in runoff, seeping into groundwater and contaminating drinking water wells where they persist for decades.
Does PFAS Exposure Have Negative Health Effects on the Human Body?
The health effects of PFAS vary. Of the 4700-plus once produced, many have not yet been studied.
But two of the most common, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), have been found in blood samples from people around the world.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), even low levels of PFAS in the bloodstream are linked to:
- Kidney, liver, pancreatic and testicular cancer
- Low birth weight
- Disorders of the immune system
- Endocrine disruption
- Weight gain and more
Are PFAS Regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act?
PFAS are classified as emerging contaminants — substances discovered in water that should be monitored and studied for safety.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tracking dozens of these compounds, including PFAS. But it has yet to set a maximum contaminant level, saying that more research is needed.
It has, however, established a lifetime health advisory for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Is it enough?
Many health experts are unhappy with the EPA’s baby-step approach to regulation. States like Maine and California have taken the lead, banning PSAF-laden firefighting foam and lowering maximum contaminant thresholds while stepping up groundwater and surface water testing near polluted sites.
But the carbon and fluorine atoms in PFAS create a virtually indestructible chemical bond, making them formidable to remove once in the environment. So, we have a long road ahead.
Due to environmental concerns, PFOA and PFOS were phased out voluntarily in 2000, but we have a long road ahead. Production of FDA-approved PFAS — chemicals worse than those they replaced by some standards — continues.
What the future holds isn’t certain, but one thing is clear. The most effective way to reduce PFAS exposure today is to take charge of your drinking water quality. We’ll show you how.
How Do I Know If My Tap Water Is Contaminated with PFAS Chemicals?
Unlike some contaminants, you can’t see, smell or taste PFAS in drinking water. So, while the EPA, state environmental authorities and water utilities can help homeowners assess their risk level, the identification of contaminated sites could take years.
Not all public water systems test for PFAS yet, and if you drink from a well, regular testing is your responsibility. For now, the only way to know if your drinking water supply contains PFAS is to have it tested.
Testing Your Water for PFAS Contaminants
Having your water tested is a straightforward process, but there are no DIY test kits for PFAS because there are too many to check for. You need the help of a lab.
We recommend using only a certified drinking water laboratory because testing for emerging contaminants requires the latest technology and techniques. SimpleLab, an accredited, award-winning nationwide network of independent laboratories is well-equipped to perform the analysis.
Testing for PFAS is tricky because household products that contain PFAS shed chemical molecules. Wearing water-resistant clothing while collecting samples, for example, can result in cross-contamination.
SimpleLab’s Tap Score PFAS Water Test identifies the 14 most common PFAS in drinking water down to 2 ppt. All-inclusive, it comes with sample containers, a prepaid return label and foolproof instructions.
Does Boiling Water Remove PFAS Chemicals?
Boiling water removes many contaminants, but not PFAS. Distillers, however, and water filters do.
Which Water Filtration Systems Remove PFAS from Drinking Water?
Any one of these affordable filtration methods can capably remove most PFAS. Some, however, are a better choice than others. Let’s look at why.
#1 Activated Carbon Filters
Granular activated carbon removes up to 99-percent of PFAS through adsorption — a chemical process through which contaminants adhere to filtration media with an expansive surface area.
Common in its granular form in a wide range of water filters and whole house water filtration systems, activated carbon is inexpensive, accessible and highly effective under one condition — filters must be meticulously maintained. A North Carolina State University study showed that activated carbon filters clogged with PFAS may concentrate chemicals in your drinking water.
Since maintenance is an important consideration for any water treatment system, we wouldn’t shy away from activated carbon filters over maintenance fears. Just be aware of the commitment. If you choose an activated carbon filter, like a water pitcher, changing the cartridges on time is critical.
#2 Reverse Osmosis Filters
Reverse osmosis works by forcing water through a semipermeable membrane laced with microscopic pores that remove up to 99.9-percent of most contaminants, including 90-percent of PFAS. Powerful technology, it’s among the many advanced filtration methods that water treatment plants use.
Most residential RO systems are undersink filters that produce and store clean water in a tank under your kitchen sink. Equipped with sediment and activated carbon prefilters, the combination of multiple treatment technologies in one water treatment system is what makes multistage reverse osmosis filters so effective. If contaminant levels in your well are high, an RO filter may be your best bet.
#3 Ion Exchange Filters
Ion exchange filters are nearly as effective as granular activated carbon filters and reverse osmosis systems. They use the same filtration process water softeners rely on, yet softening systems don’t remove PFAS. Why?
Ion exchange resins vary. Cation resin, the type found in softeners, attracts positively charged contaminants. To remove PFAS, you need an anion exchange filter. Single-tank backwashing filters, they’re similar to softeners but they target different substances.
Neither as cost-effective as a granular activated carbon filter nor as capable as a reverse osmosis system, ion exchange filters are ideal for homeowners who need them specifically to remove contaminants that other filters don’t, like arsenic.
Distillation is a process in which condensation from boiling water is captured and condensed. Because the boiling point of PFAS is hundreds of degrees higher than water, the chemicals remain in the boiling chamber.
Home distillation units are budget-friendly, starting as low as $75, but they require electricity to operate and have a limited capacity. Countertop models can only produce a few gallons per day, which may not be enough for most families.
Choosing the Best PFAS Removal Filter
There are two types of water filtration systems — point-of-use filters that purify water from a single tap and whole-house filters that treat water throughout your home. Which is ideal for removing PFAS? It depends.
Research shows that PFAS are poorly absorbed through the skin, and can’t be inhaled in the shower because they don’t dissolve in hot water. That’s good news if you’re on a budget because whole-house filters cost more than point-of-use systems.
But what if your drinking water contains other contaminants you want to remove? Ion exchange filters will eliminate PFAS, but they don’t touch chlorine — a problem for bathing water. Granular activated carbon filtration reduces chlorine and PFAS, but it won’t remove some heavy metals, like arsenic.
The most important consideration when choosing among water treatment systems is the contaminants it removes. Once you’ve narrowed down the options, the next step is to evaluate filter quality. Not all filtration systems are created equal.
What makes a good filter one you’ll be happy with long-term? Consider these key features:
A filtration system that can’t keep up with your family’s water needs is doomed to fail. Choose one with enough capacity to meet home-wide demand.
Cost of Ownership
The long-term cost of owning a water filter includes both the initial price and the costs to operate and maintain it.
Point-of-use filters are the least expensive upfront. Simple to install, they require no permanent changes to your plumbing system, so you won’t need to pay a pro for installation. For $30, you can buy a water filter pitcher and start enjoying cleaner water today. Or consider a reverse osmosis filter. Starting at $200, they’re a great value.
Operationally, distillers, ion exchange filters and RO systems equipped with electric pumps use electricity. Compared to buying bottled water, it’s a bargain.
But both RO and ion exchange filters can increase your water bill. RO filters produce 1-3 gallons of wastewater for every gallon of pure water they make while ion exchange filters use up to 200 gallons of water per week during backwashing cycles. If your water and sewer rates are high, the costs add up.
Similarly, while point-of-use filters are the least costly to buy, they require more maintenance. After two years of changing disposable cartridges in a water filter pitcher, you may wish you’d purchased a whole-house carbon filter. Some can last a lifetime.
Budget matters, but PFAS are forever chemicals, so we suggest taking a comprehensive approach to filtration costs.
Safety and Performance Certifications
Filters should protect you from contaminants, but did you know that some may contain chemicals or heavy metals that can leach into your drinking water? Lesser manufacturers, meanwhile, make bold claims about their products’ filtration capabilities without the test results to back them up. Consumers need protection.
That’s why we recommend filters certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). Independently tested, NSF-certified systems must reduce PFOA and PFOS concentrations to below 70 parts per trillion (ppt) — the EPA’s health advisory level.
Filters must also comply with ANSI 53 standards, meaning that they won’t leak or introduce harmful contaminants into your water. Certified products are regularly retested, and manufacturing facilities are inspected annually to ensure continued quality control.
In addition, NSF certification is a voluntary program — it costs up to $100,000 to participate. So, if like some buyers, you’re worried about the quality, durability and part support for your filter, you can’t go wrong buying products manufacturers have enough confidence to invest in.
Until PFAS pollution is reigned in, the presence of forever chemicals in our water supplies remains an ever-present health risk. How long it will take government agencies to resolve the problem at the national level, no one knows. But you can solve yours today with a water filter.